Called to the bar in 1984, Windsor Law alumna Thora H. Espinet (LLB 1982) is a lawyer and family law mediator based in Toronto. Born in Clarendon, Jamaica, Espinet moved to London, England, with her parents before moving to Toronto. After completing her undergraduate degree at York University, Espinet graduated from Windsor Law as one of the only Black women lawyers in Ontario that year.
Espinet says she has bittersweet memories of being one of the few Black women in law school and the legal profession in the early 1980s.
“Windsor Law was an incredibly progressive and supportive environment by standards of the time,” she says, adding that there were — and unfortunately still are — those who feel there is no place in the profession for women, much less a Black woman.
Despite these challenges, for over 36 years Espinet has run her own general practice in Toronto in the areas of young offender, criminal, family and child welfare, and real estate law. She has taught criminal law at Centennial College, is a past panel member of the Official Guardian (representing the interest of children in child welfare matters) and a former chair of the Canada Pension Plan Tribunal (1996-2006)
In 2008, she was appointed deputy judge in the Small Claims Court. She is a previous member of the Board of Governors of Humber College, Tropicana Community Services Organization, and the Minister's Working Group on Child and Family Wellbeing for the reform of the Child Youth and Family Services Act. She also started the first Black Court Worker Program which assisted Black accused in the criminal justice system.
In the 40 years since law school, Espinet says that she has earned the respect of even those who doubted her through her perseverance and commitment to excellence.
“Gladly, the positives have outweighed the negatives,” she says.
Some of those positives include Espinet receiving the 2010 African Canadian Achievement Award for Excellence in Law, and the 2017 Lincoln Alexander Award from the Law Society of Upper Canada for her demonstrated passion for community service and leadership in promoting social change, and addressing issues of discrimination and equality. In 2018, she was selected as one of the 100 Accomplished Black Canadian Women.
“While I am proud of my awards and achievements,” says Espinet, “my greatest accomplishment has been the gift to influence, mentor, and motivate; to impact diversity and inclusion; and to inspire future generations of young lawyers to create their own narrative. I look forward to the time when systemic racism is no longer a barrier to Black lawyers reaching their full potential.”
Espinet encourages young lawyers to be resilient, flexible, and prepared to meet new challenges.
“Be visible,” she adds. “Become a mentor, get involved in your community and your law associations. Meet every challenge head-on with honesty and integrity and without fear or apology. Think outside the box. Keep learning, but also maintain a good life balance.”