A sold-out audience of lawyers, judges, academics and others gathered in Winnipeg last week for a Journey to of Reconciliation as part of the 2016 Isaac Pitblado Lectures. This event was a first step for The Law Society of Manitoba in meeting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #27:
We call upon the Federation of Law Societies of Canada to ensure that lawyers receive appropriate cultural competency training, which includes the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal– Crown relations. This will require skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.
Of the 94 Calls to Action, at least 17 are found directly under the topic of Justice, but as Professor Aimée Craft, Director of Research with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, pointed out, approximately 80% of the Calls to Action relate in one way or another to legal and justice systems in Canada.
I cannot begin to do justice to the day and a half of presentations from Indigenous Elders, scholars, judges and lawyers and in fact, nearly a week later, I continue to absorb and process what I heard about reconciliation in the context of Indigenous law and culture, criminal justice, child protection, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Persons and more.
Among the many ideas that have continued to resonate with me since the conference were Tanya Kappo’s comments about how lawyers can learn about Indigenous legal traditions as set out in Call to Action #27. She noted that we need to start from a personal, rather than professional standpoint and that formation of authentic relationships with Indigenous people is a necessary foundation to any understanding of Indigenous legal tradition. For reconciliation to occur not only do we need learn about the traditions and the people but as a first step, our focus should be on learning to know individual Indigenous people.
Another key takeaway came as the conference was drawing to a close. Panel members set out their own practical calls to specific action toward reconciliation for both individual lawyers and law firms.
Sacha Paul was blunt in his remarks, asking the pointed question: Where are the Indigenous lawyers in Manitoba? He noted that in Manitoba some 16% of the population identifies as Indigenous but that within the legal profession, a recent survey undertaken by The Law Society of Manitoba revealed that only 4% identify as Indigenous. He went on to break down this survey data further as follows : [i]
- Of the 104 who self-identified as Indigenous, 87 were in active practice at the time of the survey
- In terms of years of practice, these lawyers are:
- 0-5 years = 38
- 6-10 years = 28
- 11-20 years = 27
- >20 years = 11
- In terms of kind of practice:
- Private practice = 46
- Government = 26
- In-house = 15
- Non-practising = 17
Paul noted that of the 17 lawyers not in practice at the time of the survey, 12 are women and 11 were called to the Bar in the past 10 years.
These numbers are of particular concern to me. Why are Indigenous women lawyers leaving active practice of law at this rate? Why are relatively newly called Indigenous lawyers leaving active practice? Where are the barriers they are facing? What are the obstacles to remaining in practice? What are the motivations to leave law practice? I can only hope that The Law Society of Manitoba will undertake further research to address these and other related questions.
Paul’s concluding call to action for lawyers and law firms, including his own, was this:
- Make sure your firm has and publicly posts its Employment Equity policy.
- Pay attention to your recruitment practices. Watch out for the concept of “fit” that in fact may disguise a bias in favour of those who look and act like you. Develop and use consistent interview questions to avoid asking questions that discriminate.
- Ask your law society to track and continue to track the numbers of Indigenous lawyers on an annual basis and to report on this each year.
- Mark your calendar for Aboriginal Day (June 21) each year and make a note to look closely at your firm members at that time and ask again: Where are the Indigenous lawyers?
These seem small steps, as Paul acknowledged, but they are also achievable and easy to implement. I can only concur. If a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, this is as good a place as any to begin this journey.
[i] Borrowing extensively from the paper, Where Are the Indigenous Lawyers in Manitoba? by Sacha Paul, 2016 (Law Society of Manitoba) with the generous permission of the author.