First law school in northern Ontario opens
Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy congratulated former Sandy Lake chief Adam Fiddler during the Sept. 4 inaugural class celebration at Lakehead University’s new Faculty of Law.
Former Sandy Lake chief Adam Fiddler took another step towards his childhood dream of being a lawyer on Sept. 4 as a member of the inaugural class at Lakehead University’s new Faculty of Law.
“It’s a dream that I’ve had since a child — I’ve always wanted to go to law school,” said Fiddler, one of 60 students in the first cohort. “When the law school was announced, that’s when I said ‘hey, it’s time to follow my dreams.’ That’s one of the messages I’ve always given to young people, follow your dreams, and it’s never too late.”
The first new law school to open its doors in Ontario in 44 years, Lakehead’s Faculty of Law celebrated with a ribbon cutting and speeches from Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy, Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Goyce Kakegamic and other dignitaries.
“Having a law school that will prepare generations of lawyers who will understand Aboriginal issues and the needs of the north is critical to the health of the province,” Wynne said.
“You will have the opportunity to specialize in areas that matter most to your home communities, and that is extremely significant.”
Wynne said the new law faculty’s students will study Aboriginal law, learn how to practice law in smaller communities and gain a detailed understanding of natural resource management, particularly in the fields of mining and forestry.
“Generations of lawyers, starting with this class, will have a deep understanding of the legal issues confronting the north,” Wynne said.
Located in the former Port Arthur Collegiate Institute building in Thunder Bay, the new law school was developed with a focus on northern issues, including Aboriginal, natural resource and small or single-practitioner law and access to justice in northern and rural communities.
Ontario provided $1.5 million for capital improvements to the historic building.
“I am particularly pleased that the school has committed to addressing Aboriginal issues in all of its subjects — this is important not only for First Nations students, but Canadian students as well,” Beardy said, noting that First Nations people lobbied and advocated to have the law school established in Thunder Bay. “I think the leadership needs to continue to be vocal to make sure that our challenges are being addressed. We need to understand why our (First Nations people) are overrepresented (in Ontario’s jails). What is wrong? We need to make sure that is being looked at so that long-term solutions can be developed to address that.”
Kakegamic said the location of the new law school will encourage more Aboriginal people to study law.
“It is exciting times right now,” Kakegamic said. “The (Northern Ontario School of Medicine) has proven that if we have a medical school in our vicinity, more people will go because a lot of them are just a plane distance away. I think this law school will prove the same thing — we’re going to train a lot of Aboriginal people to go into the legal profession where they can be a part of the solution and help with some of the legal challenges that we have in our territory. This is a very historical day.”
Kakegamic said the first Aboriginal law students will serve as role models for coming generations.
“They will play a vital role in encouraging students to go for their dreams,” Kakegamic said. “If they can do it, other First Nations can do it also.”
Fiddler first began talking about going to law school at the age of eight, but he wasn’t the first in his family to go to law school — his younger sister Tyance has already graduated from law school at the University of Ottawa.
“My younger sister didn’t talk about it, she went ahead and did it and she beat me to it, so I’ve got a few years to catch up,” Fiddler said. “It’s a real honour to be here, but we all realize that the real work starts now. It’s going to be challenging, it will be difficult, it will require hard work and commitment and I’m just hopeful that I can succeed.”
Fiddler’s father Ennis was proud to see his son in the inaugural class.
“More and more, we’re seeing a lot of our own people entering the professional fields in different areas,” Ennis said. “And it’s very good to see that. I encourage other Native students to think about going into fields of profession like this.”
Marten Fall’s Evelyn Baxter took up the law school challenge in the late 1980s and graduated with a Bachelor of Laws from Queen’s University in 1991.
“I’m actually the very first person from Nishnawbe Aski Nation to be called to the bar, back in 1993,” Baxter said. “I’ve had a very interesting and rewarding career. Currently I am an adjudicator with the Indian residential schools process and I hear all the Indian residential school stories across the country.”
Recent law graduate Derek Fox plans to help mentor some of the Aboriginal students in the new law school.
“I understand the difficulties of first-year law,” said Fox, who recently finished his articling year at Cheadles in Thunder Bay after graduated from law school at the University of Manitoba in 2012. “It’s a lot of work because you don’t know what you are doing and you don’t know how to write a law school exam.”
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