McGill’s first black law grad – and Quebec’s first black lawyer
Class of ’56 graduate Frederick Phillips, interviewed by Anthony Morgan, a McGill law student and president of the Black Law Students’ Association of Canada
In 1956, Frederick Phillips became the first black person to graduate from McGill’s Faculty of Law – and, once he passed the bar – the first black lawyer in Quebec. On the occasion of the 19th Annual Conference of the Black Law Students’ Association of Canada – coming up this Feb. 18 to 21 in Montreal – McGill law student and BLSAC president Anthony Morgan sat down with the 85-year-old BCL’56 alumnus, who lives in Montreal with his wife.
Anthony Morgan: What were your first impressions of McGill’s Faculty of Law?
Frederick Phillips: I was lost like a lot of students – I didn’t know anybody. In first year law, our class was composed of – if I remember it correctly – 96 students. But the room we were in only had 54 seats, so if you came late, you had to stand up. At the end of the first three months, that law class reduced from 90-something to 50-something students. The others just couldn’t make it. Also, in our class there was just one woman. At that time there was only one woman judge in the whole court system.
What was it like being in that environment?
I never used to think of myself as being black, you know? I was more concerned about getting my degree and getting to practice. My father was a porter for the CNR. I had been in the Air Force for three years. I was like a privileged class (chuckles) – but not only [compared to] other black guys, but also the white guys.
What brought you to law school?
They had three options for veterans to get into college if you didn’t yet have your high school diploma. There was an option to do grade eight through 11 in one year. If you failed one of those grades, you lost your entire service grant. Some of the guys took their service grant, to be safe, as a lump-sum of money, and others used it to go into business, like a loan or an advance. I had left school in grade 10 in 1939 because my father couldn’t afford to buy me a history book. But I figured I would I take my chances – so I took grade eight, nine, 10 and 11 in one year. Luckily I passed, so I was able to go to McGill to do my BA. There were two options in Montreal, Sir George Williams where you could get your BA, or McGill. I chose McGill because I knew it was famous, and to tell you the truth, I hadn’t heard of George Williams. I could have gone to University of Montreal, but I wasn’t that sure of my French.
So why did you decide on law?
It just sounded a lot better than being a CNR porter (laughs).
When you left law school, did you find there were any barriers for you as a black man practising law?
In fact, judges were very helpful to me. They wouldn’t go out of their way, but they were always, [addressing me as] ‘Mr. Philips’, you know? But by that time I was already practising. I was fortunate that when I was in law school, I met a Jewish guy named Bloomfield. We became friends. I had him over my house and he certainly never had any contact with black people before. He used to notice that I would say hello to every black person I met. It was because Marcus Garvey [founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League] started that in the States – he said you should always recognize another black person. Bloomfield would call it the Marcus Garvey rule (laughs).
Anyway, Bloomfield passed his bar before me, and opened up his office. He had a good memory and passed his bar, but he wasn’t a real studious lawyer. So when I finally passed (my bar exam) I went in to work with Bloomfield. We had our first office right in downtown Montreal. But there was another lawyer, who was rich, his parents owned a big house on Victoria [Avenue]. He was heights above us in his knowledge of the law. But he was a homosexual and in court it wouldn’t work out [because many people at the time wouldn’t accept it]. The three of us were misfits, but we were misfits who fitted together, and we opened up a law firm afterwards.
So what do you feel that you gained from your legal education at McGill Law?
I gained a better living than I would have otherwise. I was a lawyer – Montreal’s only black lawyer. But of course you couldn’t take that to the bank (chuckles). As one of my best friends said to me, being the first black lawyer in Montreal, that plus two dollars would get you a cup of coffee at the Brown Derby (laughs). The Brown Derby was a restaurant at the corner of Victoria [Avenue].
What is your proudest achievement in your legal career?
That I practiced law as the first black lawyer in Montreal, and I did it for 36 years. I’m proud of that. I never had any high intentions of ‘leading my people’ anywhere. I wasn’t interested in being a great black lawyer or anything like that. I was interested in making a living better than my father had. So what did I want out of my legal education? To earn a living! And that was my motivation.
What kind of advice would you give to black law students today?
Get through your law degree, and find some way to get into a law firm to indenture, which isn’t easy because still you’re going to run into barriers. [If] a black person walked over to this table and said to us, ‘Do you know where you can find a black lawyer or a black law firm in Montreal?’ Me, I don’t know. Think about that. We’re now talking about 2010. We’re sitting here at this moment and have a hard time answering that question. There are still barriers that exist. My only advice to black law students is to do it the recognized way.
―By Anthony Morgan
The 19th Annual Conference of the Black Students’ Association of Canada will be hosted in Montreal from Thursday, Feb. 18 to Sunday, Feb. 21, 2010. With the theme “Partnering for Progress and Unprecedented Possibilities,” the conference will feature a Gala Keynote Address by Justice Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré, a discussion on Ontario’s legal aid boycott, a look at racial profiling in Canada in the context of the shooting death of Fredy Villanueva in Montreal North, the 3rd Annual Koskie Minsky Diversity Moot – among many other exciting lectures, activities and discussions.