Mahmud Jamal’s nomination to Canada’s Supreme Court scores a win against the name barrier

Of note:

A few years ago, frustrated that I kept being detained at airports just because my name bore a resemblance to someone who was on a terrorist watchlist, I decided to adopt a middle name.

At the time, I struggled with what name I should choose. I thought long and hard about taking an Anglo-Saxon one, so as to appear less threatening to airport authorities. However, the thought of having to change an integral part of myself in order to live my life without unnecessary incursions based on the notion that I posed a danger irked me inside. Why should I have to do it, when others don’t? This is a dissonance that I imagine most immigrants or children of recent immigrants face as they navigate their professional lives. How much of your cultural heritage do you keep? And what is worth shedding as you attempt to move up the rungs of Canadian society?

So rather than anglicizing my name, I adopted the Arabic middle name Majid, after my maternal grandfather Abdul-Majid. At the time, I knew my decision could actually attract more scrutiny at airports, rather than less. It also provided another opportunity for others to misspell, mispronounce or generally feel uncomfortable saying my name.

That prospect was ingrained in my mind, as those were all experiences I underwent growing up as a South Asian-Canadian in the relatively small and homogeneous city of St. Catharines, Ont., where even well-meaning people struggled to say my name in what would be considered its “authentic” Arabic pronunciation. I found myself too shy to correct them – either out of a sense of fear or, otherwise, because I didn’t deem myself important enough to canvass a conversation around my name and, more essentially, my parent’s culture and ancestral history.

But with the accumulated baggage of life deep in the recesses of my mind, I felt some sense of vindication when Mahmud Jamal was nominated recently to the Supreme Court of Canada. Upon his appointment, he will be the first person of colour to serve on our country’s highest court.

With Justice Jamal’s appointment, as well as other recent high-profile appointments – including the selection of Reem Bahdi as the next dean of the University of Windsor’s law school – we are starting to see the erosion of both name and colour barriers in the upper echelons of the legal profession. Even the most reticent and conservative lawyers will now have to come face to face with a sitting judge who does not look like anyone from the past. 

Moreover, they will be forced to write and pronounce Justice Jamal’s name (correctly, I hope) under a new dynamic in which a member of a racialized minority group now occupies a seat of power.

For most of us who come from racialized communities, the authority that Justice Jamal will exercise from the high court is not the overwhelming reality of our existence. Rather, in Canada, we are often placed in hierarchal relationships in which an individual with an Anglo-Saxon name occupies the more authoritative position. 

So when our names are pronounced incorrectly, confused with someone else’s or even neglected, we find ourselves biting our tongues so as to avoid upsetting the status quo. This was my childhood reality and, for many, a lifelong one. This scenario has become exhausting and increasingly depressing as we await the promised inclusiveness of the country we or our parents chose.

Just as I refused to anglicize my middle name, my wife and I chose an “ethnic” name for our son when he was born two years ago. We were not ignorant of the realities we grew up in and that persist until today with regard to pronouncing and, by inference, accepting foreign-sounding names. As such, we chose a name for him that could be pronounced by the array of ethnic communities that compose our great land without the sense of trepidation that I have always thought those around me have felt. But erasing our ancestry altogether was not an option. And for us and others in our position, the nomination of Justice Jamal stands to makes us more comfortable in our shoes, not afraid to express our cultural identities all the while attempting to break whatever glass ceilings remain.

The choice that I made to affirm my roots through my middle name was a difficult one. It required concerted thought and effort. Thanks in part to the appointment of a man whose name is making history, my son will not have to take the same pains to reconcile his heritage and his ambitions.

Hassan M. Ahmad is a law professor at the University of Ottawa.


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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