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Why Give | Impact stories

New summer law program provides crucial support for Indigenous students

During the pandemic, with support from the Law Foundation of BC, the Allard School of Law created the innovative online Indigenous Legal Studies Academic Leadership program.

House Post of qiyǝplenǝxʷ (Capilano)

While law school can be exciting and daunting at the best of times — imagine starting in the middle of a global pandemic? To help the cohort of new students feel supported during this uncertain time, Allard Law found innovative ways to connect with students to support their success.

Last summer, one initiative was the Indigenous Legal Studies (ILS) Academic Leadership Certificate — Summer Intensive. Spearheaded by Lee Schmidt, Associate Director for Indigenous Legal Studies and funded by the Law Foundation of BC, the program provided incoming Indigenous law students with an opportunity to build skills and community by connecting with Allard Law students, faculty and staff. Professor Anne Uteck was the faculty lead who worked with Lee, Professor Nikos Harris, and students Maira Hassan and Cassandra Sawers to roll out this initiative on a tight timeline.

“The program gave me the opportunity to meet other Indigenous students currently attending, previously attended, or about to attend Allard Law, providing me with not only additional confidence and comfort but also a feeling of connectedness and belonging I may not have otherwise had,” said Sandra Lafontaine, one of the program participants. “The introduction to the content and resources available at Allard I found helpful to me as I begin my journey to law school.”

For two weeks in June, five hours a day, students got an online glimpse into the law school experience while building community with peers, faculty, and the Indigenous legal profession. Lectures, workshops, daily reflections, panels and talking circles were all part of the innovative programming. The topics covered during the two weeks included Aboriginal rights, the law in Canada, tort law, Indigenous legal traditions, property law, Haida law, criminal law, elders teachings, Indigenous-settler legal relations, the challenges of studying colonial law, addressing discrimination, how to read a case, the court system and developing common law reasoning skills.

There were also sessions with Allard lecturers such as Law Wellbeing Counsellor Anna Kline, Head Law Librarian George Tsiakos and librarians Tamis Cochrane & Karleen DeLaurier-Lyle from Xwi7xwa Library.

Professors Uteck and Harris were also joined by Professors Bethany Hastie, Darlene Johnston, Jocelyn Stacey, Gordon Christie, Johnny Mack, Emma Cunliffe, Patricia Barkaskas, Janine Benedet, and Doug Harris, along with Judge Alexander Wolf and lawyer and alumna Terri-Lynn Williams Davidson. They all generously volunteered their time to share their expertise and insights. Also, Elders Larry Grant and Kat Norris offered elder teachings. A panel composed of alumni Dawn Johnson, Stephen Mussell, Isabel Jackson, Alexandra Scott, Aaron Wilson and Bruce McIvor provided valuable insights into how to thrive at law school.

At the end of each day, Professor Uteck and Lee Schmidt provided one-on-one advising. Cassandra Sawyer provided optional evening mentorship sessions. These sessions continued throughout the remainder of the summer, accompanied by Maira Hassan’s skill development sessions for online learning.

“What touched me most is that, even during COVID, our community came together and jumped right in to help,” said Lee. “The willingness to assist incoming Indigenous students in the school is just tremendous and makes me emotional just thinking about it.”

Lee initiated the program due to the cancellation of the University of Saskatchewan’s Summer Program in Property and Customary Law due to the pandemic. The popular in-person program usually is attended by many of the incoming Indigenous law students across Canada.

Michelle Cameron, one of the program participants, had this to say about her experience:

“According to the BC Law Society, 4.6% of BC’s population is Indigenous, but we comprise 2.7% of the BC bar. The bench is similarly lacking in diversity. It feels daunting to enter the colonial construct of law. The program ensured we met our Indigenous cohort, formed friendships, and saw our potential to succeed at Allard. The professors, tutors, and mentors offered great introductions to basic legal concepts and areas.”

And for Professor Uteck, “this was an incredible opportunity for us to come together to work with an impressive and engaging group of incoming students. It was a joy. We are truly grateful to Lee Schmidt, who works tirelessly on behalf of Indigenous Legal Studies. Thank you to every one of you for making the Summer Intensive a success.”