But I was wearing a suit…

  • September 10, 2018
  • Melissa D. Atkinson

Last December I read a CBC article about Indigenous lawyers speaking out about bias and racism. The Law Society of B.C. and the Continuing Legal Education Society of B.C. featured an on-line video project called: “I Was Wearing a Suit.” The CBC article focused on Indigenous lawyer’s perspective within the profession and more importantly, opened a conversation about how Indigenous people are treated in our legal system.

I am a citizen of Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in First Nation which is a self-governing nation in Dawson City, Yukon Territory. I am a senior lawyer and have been practising criminal law for the last 20 years. My career has included being a prosecutor, Legal Aid, and Chair of the Yukon Human Rights Commission. I am Han, Tlingit and Kaska.

In the eleventh grade I already knew I was going to be a lawyer. People forget that Canada is only 150 years old. There was a time not long ago when Indians simply could not become lawyers. Indians could not vote. Indians could not leave the reservation without permission of the Indian Agent. Indians could not hold certain ceremonies by law. All of these constructs were protected by the shield of the rule of law. Therein began my complete fascination with my rights, responsibilities and the rule of law. It was important for me to go to law school.

It is possible to be a proud Indigenous female lawyer. I am legally trained. I am qualified. I am professional. I have taken an oath and I am aware of my ethical obligations as an officer of the court. I have been blessed to have the support of my family and Indigenous community to allow me to continue my work in criminal litigation over the past 20 years.

My articling position was with the federal Department of Justice. The Yukon Regional Office DOJ had never had an articling student before, and let alone a Yukon Indigenous articling student. My call to the bar in late January 2001 made the local news – I was the first Yukon First Nation person the join DOJ as a prosecutor. It was all very overwhelming to be the first and now I was literally the front page news. I have learned many lessons along the way and the central one is to be a proud, strong, educated Indigenous female lawyer practising law through my Indigenous lens. Like many of my elders before me, I have learned to be brave and a bit fearless.

Part of my resilience is that I have a strong foundation and pride in my Indigenous identity and traditional teachings, and I am legally trained, too. I know who I am and where I come from. I bring my Indigenous lens to my work. It is not easy most days as I do face racism, discrimination and misogyny. I tend hold myself to a higher standard of excellence because I acknowledge the determination of those who paved the way for me to join my fellow Indigenous and non-Indigenous members of the Yukon Bar. My ancestors made sure I had all the teachings and tools to be ready to take this path.

I know that systemic barriers exist. My fellow non-Indigenous colleagues are not as likely to have their qualifications questioned, nor do they face regular queries about whether they hold any bias that affects their ability to do their job. I do hope that my legal colleagues take the time to learn what reconciliation means. I suggest the first steps toward reconciliation are listening and taking the initiative to educate and recognize our own Canadian history and realize our own prejudgments.

The stories in this CBC article are part of the fabric of those of us who are taking up the challenge and pressure to be the first – the trailblazers who are always then called on to  educate others. Many times in my life I found myself standing alone, stepping into a powerful role for the first time. These new roles carry with them the blessings and burdens to add to the diversity of our profession. As the Indigenous female lawyer Ardith Walke said in her video segment: “The people that are carrying this burden need to have a place to put it. We have to listen.”

People often talk about wanting to ensure diversity in the legal profession and indeed diversity on the Bench, but read this article and it appears there is still work to be done. What can we do to support Indigenous lawyers so they will stay in the profession? What barriers continue to exist? I will continue to ask those difficult questions as a senior lawyer and I will do so to empower the next several generations of Indigenous articled students who will take their rightful place in the courtroom as lawyers. Our participation in the courts across Canada must not be confined to our over-representation as either the accused or the named complainant. We will take on roles beyond the prisoner box.

After 20 years as a litigator, I have noted fewer and fewer senior female lawyer colleagues by my side. Just recently, though, I’ve seen a small handful of female Indigenous lawyers starting out. I hope one day I can see someone that looks like me across the court as a fellow “friend” in the courtroom, or maybe in my lifetime I can say I appeared before an Indigenous woman on the bench. I have hope.

Thank you to the Indigenous women lawyers featured in this CBC article. I admire your tenacity and your bravery! I believe in the rule of law and I will continue to work towards the elimination of racism and discrimination. I will continue to practise law.

In the video a female Indigenous lawyer states: “I am an advocate, I am a warrior, and I am a lawyer.” That basically sums it up for me. That’s me. Just me … wearing a suit.

Melissa D. Atkinson is Senior Staff Lawyer and Aboriginal Court Worker Supervisor with Aboriginal Legal Services in Toronto