"Don’t wait for someone to ask you to be a part of something, whether as a member of the Bar or in society generally. You have as much to contribute as anyone else." - Najeeb Hassan
1. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your career path?
Born and raised in London, Ontario, I was one of the few persons of colour in my neighborhood and in my schools, a Canadian Muslim of Arabic heritage. My difference, and my experience of being the "other", was at times brought home in very overt ways and at other times in more subtle ways. However, I had the good fortune of being surrounded by strong family members who rejected the idea that not being of the dominant culture meant that one had less of value to offer society or that one should be something other than who one was.
I was blessed with role models, at home and in my extended family. They were teachers, artists, authors, lawyers, engineers, social workers, accountants and businesspeople, each of whom lived full lives, despite having experienced overt and subtle racism growing up as the children of newcomers to Canada. It was a source of great pride in our family that my paternal grandfather, who came to Canada at the age of 16 in the early 1900s (from what was then Greater Syria, now Lebanon), with no English and only modest education, became a successful businessperson, capable of ensuring that each of his 11 children obtained a level of post-secondary education. Seeing these fantastic contributors to every facet of society left an indelible impression on me. Moreover, my paternal grandmother (who came to Canada in the 1930's) was involved in politics and in social justice and historical preservation campaigns with all the passion of someone whose family had lived in Canada for generations. My grandparents on my mother's side (also immigrants from Syria and Lebanon) and their family were also hard-working role models to me - contributing to the community and establishing small family businesses. My grandfather served in the army during World War I for his new country. As a result, my foundational premise was that, of course, every person, from whatever background, has something of value to contribute to society.
I obtained my law degree from the University of Victoria in 1989 and married my wife, Shelina Neallani, who had graduated from UBC Law School, After a year articling in Toronto at large Bay Street firms, the recession of the early 1990s humbled us along with the majority of our colleagues. I returned to London to practice administrative law and civil litigation and Shelina began her family law practice. We moved to Vancouver, in 1995, where I have practiced most of my career, in the field of labour and employment law. My career journey has run through traditional legal practice and non-traditional legal roles. On return to British Columbia, I decided to specialize in labour and employment law, taking a position with the Health Employers’ Association of BC, as a labour relations consultant, advocate and negotiator. Our family was growing and I made sure to be an involved parent in the lives of my daughters, including coaching their softballs teams and ensuring that there were many visits with extended family on both sides of the family. I had the good fortune to be given significant responsibility within HEABC and made important connections in the labour relations field. In 2003 I was appointed a Vice-Chair of the BC Labour Relations Board. After my term at the LRB, I joined the labour and employment group of a major national law firm, at which I was a partner for 8 years, until I moved to a labour and employment boutique firm, Roper Greyell. I was a partner at Roper Greyell and a member of its Management Committee until I returned to the LRB for another term in 2019, this time as both Vice-Chair and Registrar, which is my current position.
While work and family are obviously important in one’s life, so too is staying active and finding a passion, I took up recreational hockey in my late 30s, having missed out playing growing up. I have played hockey with the same team, since 1996, and we are still going strong, notwithstanding the pandemic. The friendships and comradery have been long lasting and are important. I have also been involved in the local community, serving on non-profit boards, including on the Executive and as Chair of Impact North Van, which plays an important role in immigrant settlements services, I have also tried to give back to the local community through participation on the board of philanthropic foundations and community recreation centres. I enjoy golfing, skiing, trying new recipes and recently learned to play bridge! Hiking with my wife, daughters and our golden doodle, Harry (also known as Haroon from time to time), brings joy and balance to my life. I have taken from each of these experiences both legal and practical lessons that have made me a better lawyer and a better person.
2. Why the law?
I studied political science, as an undergraduate, which was a good introduction to the legal framework of our society. Nerd alert: I remember watching the repatriation of the Canadian Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. From then, I decided that I wanted to be a lawyer. I was interested and involved in local politics and thought that it would give me an entry point to politics if that was what I wanted to do so. As mentioned, I had amazing role models growing up, one of whom was my uncle, Hamoody Hassan, who, I suspect, was one of the earliest Muslims to become a lawyer. One of my close friends, Khalid Baksh, the year before I went to UVic, had completed his first year at the University of Windsor law. As a result, the idea of becoming a lawyer was not so far out of the realm of possibilities for me, too. I was grateful to have them as role models.
3. How has being a Canadian Muslim shaped your journey, what challenges have you had to overcome along the way?
There was one other Muslim student in my law school class, although UVIc boasted one of the most diverse first year cohorts of Canadian law schools at that time. When I graduated from law school there were few Muslim lawyers and I felt the importance of doing my best, to be noticed (for all the right reasons), so as not to leave the impression that it was a risk or a liability for a law firm to take on a Muslim.
4. What advice would you give to other Muslim lawyers?
Don’t wait for someone to ask you to be a part of something, whether as a member of the Bar or in society generally. You have as much to contribute as anyone else. When you have the opportunity, participate in all that you do to the full extent of your ability. Find ways to share your knowledge and experiences with others and bring others along with you for the ride. Finally, be open to different opportunities. Your law degree can take you many different places and open a variety of doors. And remember to take time for yourself and your family, develop pursuits and passions that you enjoy.
5. Who inspires you?
Muhammad Ali has inspired me since I was young. Here was Muslim performing at the highest level, pushing himself to be the best, yet willing to put everything on the line, to stand up for his principles in opposing the Vietnam War and fighting for civil rights. He did so at great personal cost. He represented a new image of what it meant to be Muslim. Carrying himself with pride as a black man, unashamed of his obvious Muslim name. He insisted that those who persisted in calling him Cassius Clay refer to him by his Muslim name. After his boxing career, Ali remained relevant through his involvement is civil rights and philanthropy.
6. If you could eat one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I love Lebanese food; so, I would have to say a Lebanese Mazza would be my favorite. The Lebanese know how to eat! A mazza includes small share plates such as hummus, baba ghanouj, tabouli, fatoosh, falafel, olives, lubneh, haloom cheese, kibbeh (both cooked and raw), grape leaves and fatayer, all enjoyed with paper thin saj bread. End it with fresh baklawa and Turkish coffee or mint tea. You can’t beat it!