» Go to news main

An advocate for refugees

Posted by Mark Campbell on May 31, 2021 in News, Awards, Alumni & Friends
Lee Cohen (LLB'80) (Danny Abriel Photography)
Lee Cohen (LLB'80) (Danny Abriel Photography)

This article was originally published by Dalhousie Alumni as part of their Aurum Awards coverage.

2021 Aurum Award Recipient: Lee Cohen (LLB'80)

It was a story that grabbed international headlines. In July 1987, 174 Sikhs arrived in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, seeking to escape a civil war in Punjab, India. It was a lifechanging moment not just for these new arrivals, but also for Lee Cohen (LLB’80), the lawyer who represented them.

“That was my first immigration case and it exposed me to many things that were disturbing,” Cohen recalls. “Specifically, it was the amount of racism I encountered that was connected to Canada’s immigration policies, public attitudes toward immigration, and the fact that there was no one in the local legal community who seemed to be doing anything about it. But it also was exhilarating; I saw there was work to be done to change that and I have devoted the rest of my life to it.”

By dedicating his expertise and legal practice to immigration, refugees and human rights matters, Cohen has not only helped hundreds of clients find peace, hope and opportunity as Canadian citizens but has also shifted government and public perceptions in the process. It is a legacy made even more remarkable by the fact that his initial decision to study law was essentially a whim. 

“I applied to Dalhousie without a mission,” he concedes. “But it seemed like some force was moving me in that direction. It did not really click until I started working with Dalhousie’s Legal Aid Service. When you are helping people who have been mistreated or who never had a fair shake in life, it really focuses your mind in a way that pure academic instruction can’t quite accomplish. And it was an invaluable experience in setting the course of my life.”

Decades of impact

Cohen continues along that path, changing the course of many lives. Numbers elude him, but he can say that the wedding and graduation invitations he receives each year extend three generations deep. He has also sought to expand his impact, and inculcate his knowledge and passion among up-and-coming lawyers, through the Halifax Refugee Clinic, which he founded in 2000. Privately funded, it provides legal representation to people who claim refugee status in Nova Scotia and ensures their rights and integrity are respected. 

“I’m essentially an ex-officio member now,” he says. “It was a great idea to pass the mantle to other people because they have taken it beyond where it was when I was chair of the board. The level of expertise with which the clinic staff carries out its duties and raises funds is impressive and I know it is in great hands.”

Mission focused

Over the years, Cohen’s efforts have been recognized with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Award, the Queen’s Jubilee Medal, the Democracy 250 award, an honourary Doctor of Divinity from the Atlantic School of Theology, and the Weldon Award for Unselfish Public Service from the Dalhousie Law Alumni Association. Now, he is adding an Aurum Award from Dalhousie to those honours. “In this work, you are very much in the trenches at all times,” he says. “The opportunity to enjoy a case you’ve won is momentary at best. Receiving an award like this is a chance to reflect and know that, in all those years when you felt alone, you weren’t. People were paying attention and deciding you need to be acknowledged for what you’ve done. That is very satisfying.”

Even more satisfying for Cohen is helping people achieve their dream of becoming Canadians. He remains focused on that mission even as he encourages others to carry on his efforts through initiatives such as the New Brunswick Refugee Clinic, which he helped found in 2016. Although he never set out to create a legacy, he would like to see it grow and provide more hope to those fleeing violence and instability. “I can think of no better reason to be alive than to make life better for somebody else,” he says.