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 2017 Young Alumna Award

Sarah CLARKE’97
By Janet Sailian

Sarah Clarke knows what it’s like to fall through the cracks.

When she enrolled at Branksome Hall in Grade 6, Sarah could barely read — a result of several years in French Immersion and an abrupt switch into English school that left her scholastically unmoored. She found at Branksome teachers who were not only educators, but mentors. They believed in Sarah, and their compassion helped her flourish as a student and future leader.

Her own struggles to find her path and her voice fed Sarah’s impassioned advocacy for the rights of First Nations children on reserves, who lack access to basic services other Canadian kids take for granted. As principal of Clarke Child & Family Law, Sarah now specializes in child protection, custody, access and adoption cases.

Small talk is not Sarah’s thing. Launch a conversation about her work, her schooling, Toronto traffic, whatever, and the topic soon veers to advocacy. Within moments, she is deep into details of her latest case, representing a First Nations child who was denied funding for medically required orthodontic care.

Her growing renown in legal circles began with the landmark case Sarah helped steer to victory before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. Starting in 2008, first as an articling law student and then as co-counsel, Sarah stood for First Nations Child and Family Caring Society in Caring Society v. Canada.

In its ground-breaking judgment in January 2016, the tribunal found that the federal government had underfunded First Nations child welfare programs, and thereby discriminated against Canada's aboriginal people.

Sarah’s unrelenting work on this case has garnered great respect among her peers. In August 2016, she was named one of the year’s Top 25 Most Influential in Human Rights Law by Canadian Lawyer magazine. The following November, she received the Odyssey Award from the University of Windsor, for Windsor Law alumni who are making a mark early in their careers. Last June, she was honoured with the President’s Award from the Ontario Bar Association, recognizing her significant contribution to the advancement of justice in Ontario.

Much work remains to be done. Sarah continues to push the federal government to comply with the tribunal’s order. Changes have been slow and minimal, she says, and “there are daily, detrimental impacts on Aboriginal kids due to not following the spirit and letter of the law.”

As a member of the Ontario government’s Office of the Children’s Lawyer panel, Sarah represents kids in the child welfare system and before the Child and Family Services Review Board. She speaks publicly to raise awareness of ongoing discrimination against First Nations families.

On a segment of TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin after the tribunal decision in 2016, Sarah’s fierce devotion to equality shone through her calm eloquence. She spoke of chronic underfunding on reserves, and of the 163,000 children brought into foster care since the infamous “Sixties Scoop” tore babies and young kids away from their families.

“It’s not just about money,” Sarah says. “It’s about restoring hope and the integrity of the Aboriginal family unit. It’s about dignity.”

How does Sarah juggle her compelling work and her cherished family with two young children? It’s a challenge she shares with her husband, Jim Elson, whom she met in law school.

Jim’s is the hand that keeps the household humming. He gets home by six o’clock every evening from his job as a social policy analyst with the Ontario Bar Association. “I make the menu plans and he executes,” says Sarah.

“I have working-mom guilt,” she readily admits. “I try to be present with my kids as much as possible, but I’m never there for dinner. My goal is to be home before they go to bed. I invest all my attention into those one and a half hours and our time together on weekends.”

As to the origins of her extraordinary early accomplishments, her mother, Pat Robinson, reflects: “Sarah was born a leader. As a child, she was always setting the agenda for friends and family. As an adult, she still does. She is able to rally people to the cause, mentor them, inspire them and ultimately lead them to accomplish their shared goals.”

Janet Sailian is a freelance communications consultant, writer and editor.


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