Valli Chettiar has had a very successful legal career since graduating from UBC in 1992: she was a partner with Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, acted as general counsel to Phillips, Hager & North Investment Management Ltd., and is currently Vice-Chair of the Property Assessment Appeal Board and a Member (Mediator/Arbitrator) of the Surface Rights Board in BC. But what stands out the most about Ms. Chettiar is her enduring passion for promoting equity and diversity in the legal profession.
"As a child, I lived in different parts of India, then came to Hong Kong where I attended elementary and high school, and then finally arrived in Canada as a teenager. By the time I was 17, I had lived in three different countries and was exposed to various cultures and languages. As with anything, there was positives and negatives with all of this. The negative was that I faced discrimination. The positive was I learned how to deal with discrimination, unfairness, and inequity, and later in life those experiences gave me the depth, courage and impetus to do something about them."
Ms. Chettiar has been involved in equality initiatives throughout her career, as Chair of the Canadian Bar Association (CBA) BC Equality Committee and as a member of the CBA National Standing Committee on Equity, where she played an influential role in the development of the CBA Equity and Diversity Guide (a valuable resource for law firms and other legal organizations). Ms. Chettiar was also a founding member of the Law Society of BC's Equity and Diversity Committee and the first Chair of the CBA Racial Equality Implementation Committee, where she was in charge of implementing 60 recommendations from the CBA's 1999 Report of the Working Group on Racial Equality. She has served as the first Equality representative on the CBABC Executive Committee, volunteered her time as a Board member on both the Diversity and Public Legal Education committees at West Coast LEAF, and presented numerous seminars and workshops at various immigrant services organizations, universities, conferences and CBA and Law Society events.
Her commitment to equality and diversity has not gone unnoticed and has garnered several awards, including the 2012 CBA Touchstone Award. This annual award is presented to an individual or organization that has made an exceptional contribution towards promoting equality in the legal profession, the judiciary, or the legal community in Canada. What has motivated Ms. Chettiar from the very start is her belief in treating everyone with respect and fairness, using her own experiences with discrimination to inspire others.
Starting law school late in life, Ms. Chettiar had to balance her responsibilities as a law student with her responsibilities as a mother to two young children, and in doing so, unwittingly instilled the same values of respect and fairness in her own children. "They grew up observing me do all this advocacy work. Without me realizing it, they too embraced the principles I was advocating."
Over the years, Ms. Chettiar has witnessed some progress but notes that we are still a long way from where we ought to be. She believes that law schools play an important role in ensuring that students are made aware of issues related to equity and diversity, and can inspire change in a variety of ways, such as seminars and symposiums with speakers who have faced discrimination and are role models. "Unless people think about it and do something about it, it won't happen on its own."