These Indigenous Lawyers Fight to Change the Face of British Columbia’s Legal Profession

Kelly Russ still remembers meeting Justice Alfred Scow, British Columbia’s first Indigenous judge, in Prince Rupert while attending elementary school with Scow’s children.

Scow, who died in 2013, was taboriginal first person British Columbia Law School graduate and the first Indigenous lawyer to be called to the bar in British Columbia.

Meeting the man in person gave Russ – who was born in Haida Gwaii – an idea of ​​what was possible.

Russ then spent 13 years in foster care before earning a law degree and starting his own family law firm in West Vancouver.

Russ, 58, is now one of four Indigenous candidates who coordinate to run for council positions who oversee the legal profession in British Columbia – a number that the Law Society of British Columbia (LSBC) considers remarkable in itself.

Elected benches act collectively as directors of the LSBC and regulators of the profession, as well as individually as arbitrators, to “promote and protect” the public interest, the company notes.

According to LSBC The figures, about 2.73 percent of the organization’s nearly 14,000 members – 359 lawyers – identified as Indigenous in 2020. Yet only two Indigenous Councilors have been elected in the past 137 years, the Indigenous Lawyers Forum from the British Columbia branch of the Canadian Bar Association.

Russ and his fellow lawyers Katrina Harry, Brian Dybwad and Lindsay LeBlanc campaigned in a joint effort for one of the 19 spots and stressed the need for greater Indigenous representation.

Two other independent candidates, Kyla Lee and George Rivard, also identify as Métis. The Indigenous Lawyers Forum has called on its members to support all Indigenous candidates.

In their own way, says Russ, they hope to provide the same kind of inspiration that Scow gave him decades ago.

“I think that as Indigenous people we are finally getting our feet on the ground within the legal profession, trying to find our way within the profession, especially within the regulatory body that is the legal profession. Law Society of British Columbia, ”Russ said.

“Yeah, maybe we’re a little late for the game. But we are coming and we would like to participate. “

A historic election

Campaigns to lead the British Columbia legal profession rarely make headlines, but the Bar and the Aboriginal Lawyers Forum have underscored the historic nature of the current competition.

Voting in this current election began on November 1 and ends on November 15. A total of 34 candidates are vying for the 19 places available.

In addition to councilors elected by lawyers from across the province, the government also appoints up to six members to represent the public interest. LSBC Director of Communications Jason Kuzminski says a certain level of Indigenous representation has been achieved through public appointments since the 1990s.

Karen Snowshoe, second from left, was the first female Indigenous counselor elected to the BC Law Society. She is seen here in a 2017 image from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. (Dave Croft / CBC)

Still, “the number of Indigenous candidates applying to become members of the Council of Trustees is encouraging,” Kuzminski wrote in an email.

“This is consistent with the Law Society’s efforts to be more inclusive with Indigenous peoples. “

First Indigenous Councilor elected in 2018

In 2018, Karen Snowshoe was the first Indigenous woman elected as a councilor.

According to LSBC documents, it was Snowshoe’s powerful dissent at a disciplinary hearing last spring that “raised serious questions about the ability of the Law Society’s regulatory process to engage, process and accommodate marginalized complainants and witnesses , especially indigenous people ”.

She wrote a scathing review of a penalty for a lawyer who hired a murderer on parole to help him with the cases of residential school survivors who later claimed the released killer attempted to extort the money of the regulations.

Snowshoe was rejected by the other two members of the three-person panel; she called the month-long suspension and the $ 4,000 fine they agreed to “grossly inadequate” and predicted the decision “would very likely undermine public confidence.”

In response to its recommendations, the company established a task force to review its regulatory processes.

In an interview with CBC, Snowshoe, who stressed that she was speaking for herself and not for the bar, said the decision was “huge.”

The Law Society of British Columbia is currently holding an election for trustees. A group of four native candidates presented themselves as a whole. (Jon Hernandez / CBC)

“I think it was shocking to the average lawyer who saw this case. It was shocking to the average member of the public who thought, ‘How could this have happened? could he have allowed that to happen? ‘”said Snowshoe.

“Ultimately, if we don’t have the public’s confidence in our ability to self-regulate and we can’t protect the most vulnerable and marginalized members of our public, then our ability to self-regulate will really be challenged. question.”

Snowshoe said beyond a “significant” time commitment, being the only Indigenous counselor elected was emotionally draining and she had faced overt racism and micro-aggression from her side. of some colleagues.

“I can handle it all, but it costs a bit more in terms of cuts along the way, not feeling welcomed by some people who, frankly, are happy with the power structure as it is,” she declared.

“We are not asking for the guilty vote”

In 2015, LSBC advisers agreed to address the issues identified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report.

They recently piloted a course focusing on “the history of Indigenous-Crown relations, the history and legacy of Indian Residential Schools, and how legislation pertaining to Indigenous peoples created the issues that reconciliation seeks to address.”

Snowshoe said she supports the four candidates who want to continue her work, as she believes it is crucial for the public to view Indigenous representation as part of the reconciliation process.

LeBlanc, who is Métis, is president of the Law Foundation of BC

Victoria’s lawyer says that the fact that only two Indigenous lawyers have been elected counsel in over a century is striking in a province where Indigenous peoples are over-represented in the criminal and child welfare legal systems, and where the rights of indigenous peoples are at the forefront. at the heart of many urgent legal battles.

WATCH | What reconciliation means for this British Columbia First Nation:

What the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation Means for this British Columbia First Nation

For members of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, September 30 is about honoring children and residential school survivors and paving the way for reconciliation. The First Nation has sparked a national conversation after helping uncover what appear to be the remains of 200 children buried at a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. 4:13

“I think it’s shocking,” LeBlanc said. “This is not representative of the number of Indigenous lawyers who are in the profession and it is a continuation of the under-representation.”

Like the other three nominees, LeBlanc points out that she presents herself as a competent lawyer with something to offer the profession as a counselor who happens to be Indigenous.

Russ agrees.

“We are not asking for the guilty vote. We are asking for the competence vote,” he said.

“This is an opportunity for lawyers in British Columbia to say, ‘You know what? Yes, they are competent, and we are ready to move forward in this era of reconciliation and elect these people as advisers because we believe it is an important social good to have four competent Indigenous lawyers at the advisor table. “

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