First aboriginal woman to head Canadian law school...
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Jan 24, 2016  |  Vote 0    0

First aboriginal woman to head Canadian law school lives up to her name

Angelique EagleWoman, who will lead Bora Laskin Faculty of Law at Lakehead University, hopes to encourage young aboriginal people to pursue legal careers

OurWindsor.Ca

Angelique EagleWoman did not get her full name until she was 15.

In her Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe, one of the Dakota Nations, children are given nicknames at birth and receive their formal names as teenagers, when their true character is revealed.

Gathered with her family at a sweat lodge ceremony on their South Dakota reserve, she was told she was to be called Wambdi Awanwicake WasteWin, which roughly translates to “Good EagleWoman.”

“I was told that it was an important name and it meant that I was supposed to do something with my life, to contribute to our people,” EagleWoman said over the phone from Moscow, Idaho, where she is a professor at the University of Idaho’s Native American Law Program.

The appellation was fitting for someone who would become the first aboriginal woman to head a law school in Canada.

EagleWoman has been appointed dean of the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law at Thunder Bay’s Lakehead University, which specializes in both aboriginal and natural resource law, as well as practising in rural communities. The faculty was founded in 2013.

At 46, EagleWoman has already had a distinguished career as a legal scholar and practising attorney. It all started, she said, at the age of 8.

At home in Topeka, Kansas, she watched on TV as her aunt and uncle emerged victorious on the steps of a local courthouse with a $75,000 (U.S.) settlement from the sheriff’s department. Her uncle, an African-American, had sued after he was brutally beaten by police.

“And right then I thought, I want to be a lawyer,” EagleWoman recalled. “That’s what justice is.”

Her father stoked her interest by lending her books on the history of her people and she decided she wanted to be a lawyer for tribal nations. But that path didn’t come easy.

The oldest of four children, she split her time between Kansas and South Dakota. In South Dakota, she was a cheerleader at her tribal school and felt a greater sense of belonging than at the public high school in Topeka, where she was often the only aboriginal person in her advanced placement classes.

In law school at the University of North Dakota she was the only aboriginal person in the class of about 70.

“I went up and asked the professors questions on how does this relate to my community? And a lot of times they wouldn’t have answers.

“There were times where other students would make comments in class responding to a case in a book that had an aboriginal person in it and that would be upsetting to me.”

She was often taken as the spokesperson not just for her tribe, but for all aboriginals past and present, she recalled.

It’s something she doesn’t want other aboriginal students to face, and she’ll try to attract more of them at Lakehead.

At that institution, where students are required to take aboriginal law courses, EagleWoman will offer a valuable perspective, said Brian Stevenson, Lakehead University’s president and vice-chancellor.

“I think she’s going to be a very critical player at a time when here in the North we’re talking about how to deal with the Ring of Fire (a massive mineral deposit where mining is planned) and how to bring the aboriginal communities into that discussion,” he said.

“There is a wave across the country around dealing with a number of issues . . . to do with Aboriginal Peoples, and I think that we’re seeing more and more need for lawyers who are trained in those fields.”

The university “has been working very hard” to attract and admit aboriginal students, Stevenson said, particularly ones from isolated northern communities who might go back and practise there. Of the almost 60 students who will graduate this spring, about five are aboriginal and the school is hoping to increase that number, he added.

Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day noted that EagleWoman’s appointment comes on the heels of the report by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“There are 94 calls for action and guaranteed that within those 94 calls for action, every one of those calls for action will have a need and a process that looks at the legal issues and impacts of some of those changes,” he said.

“There’s a very complex unravelling of existing laws and it’s going to take the lens and the value system of indigenous people to do that.”

The commission’s report called specifically for all Canadian law schools to institute a mandatory course on aboriginal people and the law.

EagleWoman will start her new role in May, and her husband and son will join her in June.

She said she’s looking forward to getting to know the community, enjoying the views of Lake Superior from the office, and serving as a role model, which she sees as a natural extension of being an educator.

“I believe that with this new law school there is a call going out to aboriginal communities … the doors to law school are open for you.”

Toronto Star

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