Photo Provided By: Althea Francis
Jan. 16, 2024
A Seat at the Table
Althea Francis, was playing hopscotch, doing a one-two-three step in her neighbour’s tiny yard, a splash of dirt rising with each stamp of her bare feet. High in the hills of rural Jamaica, where she lived with her grandparents, it was hot and muggy and hard for anyone to scratch out a living. School loomed. Her dream was to rise above, become an airline hostess, fly over the treetops and far beyond to another world.
She heard the jingle-jangle of her father’s keys. Her five-year-old heart fluttered, half-beat excitement, half-beat tremor of fear. She ran to her home’s small kitchen, jostled the chair to the blue table, her hands clasped above the polished linoleum that was flecked with silver spangles and bolts of small stars, and sat upright, her feet dangling.
“I was a lovely, free-spirited child but when my father, Dalbert, came to visit, it was [time to] hit the books,” says Francis, BA’95, LLB’99 who is General Counsel at Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) in Ontario. “He’d charge into the kitchen. He’d command me to read. And I would very diligently bend over a book or newspaper or whatever was required and do my work.”
A vase of fresh-cut red Easter lilies centred the table, her grandmother’s provision of beauty and grace every week.
It was almost like praying in church. In a place where poverty reigned and breaks were hard to come by, education was a calling. It brought iron rules but golden moments. It invited vigor and required faith.
“My father had a strong hand in disciplining and ensuring that I was focused on my education,” says Francis, who was raised for much of the time as a child by her paternal grandparents. Her dad worked as an ambulance driver in the city to pay the bills.
“I can say now with gratitude to him, that his hunger to aspire and establish a legacy through his child, helped get me to where I am, and who I am, today.”
Though visitors described Jamaica as a paradise, for Francis, it was fertile ground for crawling upward and outward.
Aiming for progress
Francis was a quick study, accelerating through school lessons and grades. As she grew, she learned how to navigate a classroom’s system of judgement, figure out a school’s overarching etiquette and regulations, and determined how to apply her talents.
She realized early on that she was academically inclined. She loved literature and art. She was passionate about excelling and enjoyed the pursuit of excellence, it fueled her. The goal was always progress rather than perfection. She couldn’t always be perfect but she could, every day, aim to improve.
By turns, she discovered that her ambitions to learn more, strive more and achieve more were best articulated through a desire for social justice. Her life pointed toward a career in law.
Discovering the lustre of law at UCalgary
When she enrolled at UCalgary after she and her family had moved to Calgary, she was pursuing her interests in literature and philosophy with an English degree. She took a year off and worked at Birks Jewelers so she’d have enough money to get into the law faculty in the mid-90s.
“Initially, I didn’t think my English degree was a vehicle to get into law, though I did get encouragement when I did a law and society course, ” she says. “The social justice component of it was already very important for me. I wanted to advocate for others, and I viewed the law as an esteemed and wonderful profession.”
Getting an apartment downtown for $400 monthly, paying the bills and saving for school strengthened her resolve. She realized that she could overcome barriers with resiliency and strength. “I learned to juggle and persevere. Here I was, fulfilling a dream of that Black girl working hard so long ago in Jamaica at the kitchen table, applying that discipline and achieving with the grace of God.”
Knuckling down and getting it done
There were groups of Black students in different programs at UCalgary that Francis found a source of inspiration and networking, even though she would often find herself as the only Black student in various classes, including in her initial class of about 60 students to start her law degree.
“I have reflected on this and even then, I knew I was at a place where intellect and pursuit of excellence were revered, and this knowledge really helped me as I knuckled down and got my work done. By doing so, really applying myself, no one could mess with me.”
As she gained in confidence and ability, she aimed to use her best qualities to help others, acknowledging that she had also at times been elevated by others along the way.
Diversity and the reach of a helping hand
Francis fondly recalls Chris Levy, who at the time was Professor of Law and Adjunct Professor of Medicine (Bioethics). When he was seeking nominations for a student representative on the admissions committee, he encouraged her to apply.
“He knew I had an interest in social justice issues and his encouragement led to an amazing experience for me on that committee,” says Francis. “He ensured there were different perspectives invited into the admissions process.”
Among the books that he loaned to her at the time was Victor Kiernan’s The Lords of Human Kind: European Attitudes to other Cultures in the Imperial Age.
Today, Levy is a retired professor of law and adjunct professor of medicine, and former member of the Law Society of Alberta. He says one of his objectives in the mid-90s was to increase diversity of the student body, with due regard to academic standards, and Francis met all aspects of the necessary criteria for a student that could be on the committee.
“I remember Althea well,” says Levy. “She was a bright young lady, very personable with a strong social conscience and a wider range of experiences and interests than was typical for law students of her generation. I had every confidence that her career would prosper.”
Beyond the dream
What she has achieved so far has exceeded her dreams.
Since her call to the bar in 2001, she has been a member of the PPSC. She was promoted to Senior Counsel in 2012 and General Counsel in 2023. Francis leads and oversees the prosecution of complex cases that involve national security, terrorism, organized crime, money laundering and fraud, among her caseloads. Her case successes span the Superior Court of Justice, the Ontario Court of Justice and the Ontario Court of Appeal.
“I bring a unique perspective to each case as a Black woman, immigrant and mother,” says Francis. “I am passionate about issues of justice. What we know to be true is that there is over representation of certain marginalized people within the justice system. If we are to fulfill our role of protection of all those who come into it, we must really do something to stem the tide.”
For the past six years, she has been heavily engaged in promoting equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility at the Ontario Regional Office while having a major impact on programs and policies that drive PPSC nationally.
Francis has received the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Award in 2013, the PPSC Leadership Excellence Award in 2018, and the 2019 Canadian Lawyers Magazine Innovatio award for Diversity, for spearheading events and training to educate others about inclusivity and diversity. She tries to encourage discussion about these issues both within PPSC and the broader justice system in a way that invites varied perspectives, while recognizing there is still a lot of work to be done.
“Knowing my decisions can have an impact and influence is heartening to me,” says Francis. “I can make a difference, case by case. We need the appearance from the outside, too, that there is fairness and equity and that justice is possible for all. We must remember that every day, when we are doing the work, we are striving for an ideal. ”
Photo Provided By: Althea Francis
Back to the garden
When she considers what put her on a path toward a career in law, she wonders if those days as a child in her kitchen in Jamaica, the kerosene lamplight flickering on the pages she was reading as her father stood nearby, contributed to her wanting to advocate for herself and others.
“I was a silent child for a long time,” she says. “What was the feeling when I sat down to read with my father there? There was no speaking back. It was complete adherence to authority. And so, perhaps, a desire to know how to best speak out for myself, and for others, may have arisen from that table.”
These says, she spends as much time as she can with her family, including her father and mother, her husband, and her four children. They will often find her in the backyard garden, where she digs out weeds, coaxes flowers to bloom, then brings them inside the house to flourish in gold pots.
At times, it seems to her a paradise. If you were to visit, you’d discover her tending to her favourite flower, which is shaped like a heralding trumpet with lance-shaped leaves. Easter lilies.