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Justice Karen Weiler, a board member at Covenant House, has spent her law career wielding the law in the service of kids. Photo courtesy Karen Weiler

Justice Weiler makes law work for kids

  • January 22, 2021

Over the course of six decades, Justice Karen Weiler has wielded the law in the service of kids. Semi-retired, honoured throughout Canada’s legal community and now with the Order of Ontario in her back pocket, she’s still doing it.

The board member for Covenant House was honoured with an appointment to the Order of Ontario, along with 24 others, on Jan. 1.

When Weiler started practising law in Thunder Bay in 1967 she stumbled across a problem, a big problem with the law. Legally, kids as young as seven in Northern Ontario could be shipped 1,500 km away to a training school in southern Ontario — even for minor infractions, or no infraction at all. All that was necessary was the say-so of somebody in authority — a police officer, a teacher, a social worker — who deemed the child “unmanageable.” 

There was no appeal, no hearing of any kind, but it was all legal under section eight of the Training Schools Act.

“As much as I love the law, I know the law has its limitations and it’s imperfect,” Weiler told The Catholic Register. “People are imperfect and people make the law. All we can do is try to do what we can to make it better.”

First as one of the few family law practitioners in Northern Ontario, then as an in-house lawyer for the Ministry of Community and Social Services and later working directly for Attorney General Roy McMurtry, Weiler spent most of the 1970s trying to change the law that sent kids to reform schools, breaking up families on dubious grounds.

By 1980 she had helped McMurtry pass three new laws — the Family Law Reform Act, the Children’s Law Reform Act and the Succession Law Reform Act. Since then, no more kids have been sent away by section eight. 

“If you understand how the law works, then the next thing you can do is you can advocate for change in the law. That’s another big aspect of being a lawyer,” Weiler said.

Solving the real world problems of young people living difficult lives in an imperfect world is what drew Weiler to her volunteer post on the board of Covenant House, an agency that for almost 40 years has served homeless youth on Toronto streets.

“It is such a wonderful organization,” she said.

She’s passionate about the real world solutions Covenant House has applied to youth homelessness, sex trafficking, mental health crises, youth unemployment, young refugees and migrants and unfinished educations. At Covenant House “you’re not just helping the individual young person, you’re helping Ontario, you’re helping Canada,” she said.

For Weiler the idea that youth are the future of the nation is more than a pious cliché.

First on her list of the practical solutions Weiler praises at Covenant House is the agency’s extensive work to first prevent and then to heal the damage done by sex trafficking.

“Covenant House is solving that problem by providing a safe haven and by providing counselling to women,” she said. 

At Avdell Home and Rogers Home, both managed by Covenant House, young women have a chance to live their lives away from the sex trade, receive counselling, resume their education and make plans for the future. Weiler is particularly sympathetic to the fate of women who have lost their children in the child welfare system.

“One of the reasons, the motivating reasons, why they want to get their lives turned around is they want to be able to have their children back,” Weiler explained.

But there are smaller ways that Covenant House helps young people in crisis reclaim their lives. Weiler is pleased by Covenant House’s partnership with George Brown College to equip their young people with cooking and commercial food service skills.

“When they graduate, these young people can work in any kitchen at an entry level,” she said. “In addition to providing youth with the skills to work in a restaurant, this is a good survival skill. Youth are learning how to look after themselves.”

Covenant House’s capacity for practical solutions to real problems has been almost overwhelmed by the COVID-19 crisis over the last year. Their 92 shelter beds had to be cut to maintain social distance. Over 30 Covenant House guests were moved to hotel rooms, but continued to be served by Covenant House workers and programs.

“Covenant House has remained open 24/7,” Weiler boasted. “The frontline staff have been working around the clock to help the youth. They risk, obviously, their own health in doing that. Of course they have the proper protective equipment. But you can’t help but be exposed to the dangers of getting COVID.”

Looking at Covenant House, Weiler sees a passion that fits her own life-long passion.

“I’m still concerned with how society deals with youth, concerned with trying to help young people,” she said.

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