Lee Cohen (LLB’80): Impacting immigration
For two years, Lee Cohen (LLB’80) was certain he made the wrong academic choice in studying law at Dalhousie. It wasn’t that he was unhappy with the program, or the professors; he just didn’t feel cut out to be a lawyer.
But when he started working in Dalhousie’s Legal Aid Service in his final year, everything began to click.
“I came face to face with people who absolutely needed help and could go no other place to get it. I was seeing inequities, injustices and indignities in the community. And that was a fuel for my fire.”
A leading light
More than 35 years later, that fire is as strong as ever. Starting with his representation of 174 Sikhs who landed in Shelburne in the summer of 1987, Cohen has become a leading light in immigration and human rights law in Nova Scotia.
Drawing on the knowledge and tools he gained at Dalhousie, he’s helped hundreds of people achieve safety, liberty and opportunity as Canadian citizens.
There has been considerable red tape to navigate along the way, not to mention hostility and indifference from both the government and the public. He recalls how, while giving interviews about the Sikhs he represented, passersby would yell that he – a Saint John, NB native – and his clients should go back where they came from.
“Nobody was for immigration,” he says. “Nobody wanted refugees. I felt I was one of the very few people struggling to open the eyes of our community to something that needed to be talked about. We had the opportunity to bring people to Canada – people who would help build our prosperity and our nation, but who also needed to be here. So I dedicated myself to refugee and immigration law.”
Through his work, interviews, lectures and the founding of the Halifax Refugee Clinic – which currently has an 85 percent success rate for claimants – Cohen has helped shift perspectives considerably.
The warm welcome Syrian refugees received from Nova Scotia last fall is perhaps the best example of his impact. He has also served as a mentor to a new generation of immigration law professionals, who are helping him push for changes in the system.
In fact, Cohen has employed several of them in his own office. “I have a young staff that is becoming increasingly skilled and bolder in working to ensure that people’s lives are better. They will carry on with the same motivation I had when I started.”
Always looking forward
If anything, Cohen still feels like he is just getting started. As much as attitudes and regulations have advanced, he sees opportunities for improvement, and wants to be part of it. He’s been thinking about an enhanced or different role beyond his private practice, and his work as senior council with the Halifax Refugee Clinic. He has committed himself to help advance peace in the world.
With each and every immigrant and refugee he helps, Cohen takes another step toward achieving that. And he has ample reason to continue doing so: “Nothing I have ever done compares to seeing the face of someone who realizes they are finally safe. To watch the fear and dread drop away and be replaced by hope, that’s what I live for.”