Winner of Justice Cecilia Johnstone Equality Award already creating social change

Denis Ram consults for politicians, co-developed an access-to-justice app

Helen Metella - 29 March 2021

Denis Ram, ‘21 JD, says that speaking to Calgary’s city council in the summer of 2020 about acts of racism he and his family and friends have experienced in that city felt both important and harrowing.

Ram described being spot-lit by a police helicopter and harrassed by a group of officers as he and other non-white teenagers played soccer one evening; he recalled being dragged from his vehicle at 17 and handcuffed in a 7-Eleven parking lot during an unreasonable search; he repeated a police officer’s hurtful taunt that “you will never be a lawyer” and felt the pain it caused, anew.

Ram’s 20-minute speech, written after worldwide Black Lives Matter protests prompted Calgary city council to ask citizens to share their stories of race-related injustices, had several positive after-effects. Each one fulfils the criteria of the Justice Cecilia Johnstone Equality Award, which Ram has been awarded for 2021, to contribute to social equality in the community and to demonstrate a passion for fairness and compassion to those in need.


Following his speech, the city of Chestermere, east of Calgary, appointed Ram to its new Inclusion and Diversity Committee, charged with creating a diversity policy from scratch.

After he approached all of Calgary’s city councillors, Ram was hired by one as a part-time legal researcher and communications consultant. He helped research and write that councillor’s motion to divert some of the city’s 2021 police budget toward diversity measures. He also meets quarterly with another councillor to advocate for the BIPOC community.

The outcome of Calgary’s discussion of systemic racism was better than Ram expected — the police budget froze and the city allotted $8 million from its reserves to explore safer 911 alternatives. The chief of police also said he was open to adding up to $8 million of the police budget to the initiative.

Yet Ram also experienced some online harassment and even an in-person accusation that he’s racist toward white people. “One of the biggest hurdles is that many people mix up racism and systemic racism,” he says. “People that are not personally racist can still contribute to systemic racism.”

Early activism

His Calgary speech was not the first time that Ram has lent his voice in defence of social justice. His first such appearance was as a five-year-old in Vancouver, protesting with his community a military coup that disenfranchised Fiji’s ethnic minority.

“My grandpa told me to do the opening prayer song in front of thousands of people,” says Ram. “I could speak Hindi but I couldn’t read, so I had to memorize this long song. Since then, no public address has been as nerve-wracking as that.”

Ram attributes his lifelong involvement in activism to his Fijian community and specifically to his parents and grandparents. Working class Calgarians, they were involved in community associations and politics and took him door-knocking as a child. In high school, he volunteered at seniors centres, homeless shelters and as a “big brother mentor” with a child and family services organization.

During his undergraduate studies in journalism, Ram was chairperson of the SAIT Students’ Association, where he helped usher in numerous student gains, including more funding for scholarships, negotiations for a new student association building, and successfully lobbying the province for a post-secondary tuition freeze and the city to allow secondary suites as affordable housing.

Police complaints app

At the University of Alberta Faculty of Law, Ram has volunteered with Student Legal Services, and Alumni & Friends of the the University of Alberta Faculty of Law Association while excelling at extracurricular law-related activities. He was both top oralist and member of the winning team at the national 2020 Davies Corporate/Securities Law Moot and contributed research to the UCP Fair Deal panel.

In his Fall 2020 Coding the Law class, Ram referred to the research on policing he produced for the provincial government and city councillors to suggest a social justice tool that his class team developed. The online app guides people filing a complaint against the police through a series of simple questions related to specific sections of the law that might have been breached. It cites those sections and then formulates a clear complaints letter. The app was chosen to enter the 2021 Iron Tech Lawyer Invitational in the U.S. in April and has found champions among several Calgary city councillors.

“We now have Calgary councillors working to access about $45,000 to fund the next stage of the app and have received conditional approval on another $10,000 from a University of Alberta fund to study the privacy, fairness, and utility of aggregate data collection that can support policy development,” says Ram. “When Calgary implements the app, it will be the first city in the world to use a guided interview app to process police complaints to increase access to justice.” Meanwhile, another councillor is facilitating a meeting with the RCMP, “so this idea could eventually be implemented coast-to-coast.”

Despite his successes, winning the Cecilia Johnstone award still surprised Ram, who says there were many strong contenders. But he credits his mother’s favourite catchphrase for spurring him on.

“Shoot for the moon — even if you miss you’ll land among the stars.”