Aboriginal Admissions to Law School

The Program of Legal Studies for Native People (PLSNP) was founded in 1973 to encourage Canadian law schools to admit Aboriginal law students to law school, and to encourage Aboriginal students to study law. As far as anyone could tell, at that time you could count the number of Aboriginal lawyers and Aboriginal law students in the country on your fingers. After nearly 40 years, has the need for the PLSNP disappeared?

I’d say there are at least two answers to that question. First, I’d say that it is impossible to know, because no one keeps track of the actual number of Aboriginal lawyers and Aboriginal law students. My second answer would be that, although we don’t have access to all the numbers, based on the numbers I do have access to, I could not say that Aboriginal people are even close to being proportionally represented in law schools and in the legal profession.

Since the program began in 1973, about 1300 students have completed the PLSNP and about 1000 of those have enrolled in law school. About 750 of them have graduated from law school and about 65 are currently enrolled in law school. We also know that some Aboriginal students have enrolled in law school without taking the PLSNP, but we do not know how many.

There are approximately 2700 first year places in Canadian common law schools. Aboriginal people account for about 4% of the Canadian population. If 4% of students in law schools were Aboriginal there would be 108 Aboriginal students in first year law across the country, or about 300 to 325 Aboriginal students in law school. Based on anecdotal information, we are fairly sure that the actual number is significantly less than that.

The PLSNP was established to increase the number of Aboriginal people in the legal profession. According to Federation of Law Societies of Canada statistics for 2007 (the last year for which there are statistics on the FLSC website), there were about 72,000 members of law societies outside of Quebec. If Aboriginal people were proportionately represented in the legal profession, about 4% of law society members would be Aboriginal, so there would be almost 3,000 Aboriginal lawyers across the country.

In the absence of hard statistics, based on anecdote and experience, we estimate that there are about 1300 Aboriginal law graduates in the common law provinces. Again based on anecdote, we know that significant numbers of Aboriginal law graduates do not practice law, and are probably not even included in the “non-practicing” statistics for the law societies since significant numbers do not even article. Thus, there is still a long way to go to see Aboriginal people proportionally represented in law schools and in the legal profession. Even if all 1300 graduates were practicing law, we would still not have reached the halfway point on the road to proportional representation.

So proportional representation of Aboriginal people in law school and in the legal profession has not yet been achieved, although there has been some progress toward the goal. The PLSNP, as a means of increasing the numbers of Aboriginal students in law school and preparing them to succeed in law school, still has a role to play. 

Now there has to be a focus on something beyond the simple numbers for Aboriginal admission and graduation. For example, in Saskatchewan we need to be concerned about making sure that we are admitting Cree speakers to law school since there is a Cree court in Saskatchewan. (I have tried to learn Cree and can vouch for the fact that it would be much more effective to recruit Cree speakers to law school than to teach a person with a law degree to speak Cree!) If we admit high numbers of Aboriginal students to law school, but none of them are Cree speakers we won’t be doing enough. There are no doubt other examples that call for looking beyond the Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal numbers to ensure that we are working to make sure that Aboriginal people are not only proportionally represented in law school and the legal profession, but also adequately and appropriately represented.

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