Sheri Yakashiro

Life in Canada’s poorest postal code

October 2, 2008

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By Roberta Staley

Sheri Yakashiro sat, pen and paper in hand, in the holding cell of the provincial court house on Main Street, listening intently as a 22-year-old junkie described her arrest the previous night for drug possession.

As an undergraduate practicum student with Phil Rankin, renowned immigration and criminal lawyer, Yakashiro was acting as assistant duty counsel for the limp-haired young drug addict. Duty counsel—someone who gives free legal advice to people making their first court appearance—was one of many responsibilities Yakashiro shouldered during her three-month sojourn in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

"This girl’s whole arm was swollen and infected from using needles," recalls Yakashiro, a high school entrance scholarship winner and criminology major who graduates Oct. 10 with a BA. "She was my age. I thought, ‘That could have been me.’ It shows the difference that choice and opportunity can make."

Yakashiro, who grew up in Abbotsford, had her eyes opened to the realities of life in Canada’s poorest postal code—as well as the practice of law under the brilliant but truculent Rankin, champion of the downtrodden and fearless combatant of police misdeeds. The January-to-April practicum helped refine Yakashiro’s legal ethics, which she has carried on to law school at the University of Saskatchewan and will eventually use in practice.

Tossed headfirst into work on her first day, she worked 10-hour days interviewing clients, preparing them for court, trying to contact homeless clients to ensure they made it to court and keeping up with correspondence. Yakashiro represented two clients in court while Rankin was out of town.

Making upwards of 10 court appearances or more a day, as well as other duties, enhanced Yakashiro’s organizational skills. She grew a thick hide from Rankin’s famously sharp tongue, and developed a confidence she believes she couldn’t have attained elsewhere. The practicum made Yakashiro realize that, despite the law’s tarnished reputation, it can be an instrument for justice.

Inspired by Rankin, "I am determined to make a difference, fighting for the little people and trying to help them," she says.
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