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Eva Marszewski

A Trail-Blazer in Alternatives to Conventional Lawyering


We are surrounded by messages in law school about preparing for our future careers in law firms or government offices. Have you ever wondered if there is another possible path to take with your law degree? If so, you are not alone. Alternative Careers Week is happening at Osgoode from February 27 to March 3 to give students opportunities to learn about careers that do not fit the traditional path of working for a law firm or the government as a lawyer. To give you a sense of the types of career journeys you will hear during the week, I will tell you about a true legal pioneer: Eva Marszewski.


Eva’s early years in the legal field

When Eva entered law school, there were approximately six women in each first year section at Osgoode. Eva developed a passion for litigation when she was told repeatedly that women could not handle litigation and no one would ever hire a woman litigator. Eva defied expectations for a woman in the mid-1970s and practiced successfully as a litigator specializing in family law.


Eva became disenchanted with litigation in family law matters because the litigious process destroyed relationships. She saw that individuals who needed to have an ongoing relationship to care for children experienced escalating conflict through litigation. She believed that parties in the midst of family disputes needed to talk to each other to work out their issues calmly to preserve their relationships rather than engage in battle in a courtroom that destroyed relationships.


Eva then became a labour arbitrator for almost ten years, hoping that she could facilitate the conversations that parties needed to work out their differences. She was disappointed to discover that arbitration was much like litigation in terms of examining and re-examining the hurtful moments in relationships rather than helping parties find new ways of relating to each other.


Seeking an alternative career: mediation

In 1992 Eva completed training in mediation at Harvard and joined the roster of mediators in Ontario. Mediation was a new concept in the legal world at that time in which a facilitator assisted parties to talk to each other to develop their own solutions to their conflicts. Eva was a pioneer in trying to bring this approach into the mainstream of legal practice to preserve the relationships between parties that she saw destroyed in litigation and arbitration.


Eva served on the board of a North American Association (now known as the Association for Conflict Resolution).  Through the Association, she met Justice Barry Stuart from the Yukon who introduced her to sentencing circles in Aboriginal communities. Eva observed a circle involving a youth in his late teens convicted of arson. The judge in the case indicated that he was willing to consider the recommendation of the circle before pronouncing the young man’s sentence.


The youth indicated he was sorry he had burned down someone’s home but felt helpless to rectify the situation. He stated he had the skills to build a new house but did not have the transportation, tools, or funds for supplies required to build a house. The members of the circle immediately brainstormed options to loan him tools and give him transportation to the site where he could build a new home for the family who lost their house due to his actions. He was also offered more hours at his job so that he could earn the money for supplies to rebuild the house. The judge supported this recommendation: the young man did not go to jail and instead was sentenced to build a new home to replace the one he burned down.


From lawyer to charitable CEO

Eva thought that all young people should have the same opportunity she saw in the Aboriginal sentencing circle—to be supported by the community and make reparations after a crime instead of going to jail. Coincidentally, the Youth Criminal Justice Act was proclaimed at that time, enabling crown attorneys to divert young people out of court before trial. Eva took advantage of this opportunity and incorporated Peacebuilders International and sought a grant from the Law Foundation of Ontario to establish a circles-based diversion program for young people at the Ontario Court of Justice at 311 Jarvis Street in Toronto. She received a two-year grant and brought experts from across North America to train volunteers to facilitate peace circles. The Law Foundation grant did not include funding for office space, so Eva began an annual fundraiser, Spring for Peace, to pay for an office.


Eva persuaded the police and Crown to refer youth to the program and fifty young people were diverted out of court by Eva’s program in those first two years. Peacebuilders continues to offer a circle diversion program for children and youth at 311 Jarvis, and over 700 youth have now been diverted before trial. Peacebuilders International Canada now has approximately twelve staff. Spring for Peace has grown into an annual event that raises approximately a third of the budget for Peacebuilders. Eva continually seeks short-term grants and government funding to sustain Peacebuilders. She recently commenced a project funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation working with the Toronto Police and the Toronto District School Board to divert youth to her program who are experiencing difficulty in the school system before they are charged by police and enter the justice system.


Eva’s advice to students seeking alternative careers

Eva’s advice to students who want to pursue a new idea like Peacebuilders is to learn about charitable foundations. Foundations tend to embrace new ideas and see long-term perspectives. Develop relationships with foundations that are interested in work you want to do and then pitch the idea to them. You can take on the role of project manager so you can still eat and keep a roof over your head. Then watch lives change because you did something innovative. Eva believes that individuals in the justice system care about youth but the system itself is bureaucratic and can be devastating to young people. Through an alternative dispute resolution and restorative justice process in the criminal justice system, Peacebuilders now offers youth guidance and support otherwise unavailable in the justice system. Eva’s decision to give up legal practice to found a charity, and her willingness to embrace legal approaches that were unconventional at the time—litigation for women in the 1970s and mediation in the 1990s—show that a law degree can open doors other than conventional lawyering in a law firm or government.