This post is in response to previous post entitled, “Dear First Year Indigenous Law Student.” After that post, a wonderful friend and law school peer of mine commented on the post. I wanted to give her the adequate space to voice her comment and I also wanted others to see her comment in a more nuanced way. This is that post.
My good friend Naomi posted on her blog the challenges (said nicely) about being an indigenous law student. It really can be a daily challenge. There are constant personal, social, and cultural challenges that we navigate ourselves through. It can become a very isolating experience if we don’t take advantage of the assistance that is available.
I must share a bit of personal background before I go on to explain what I mean.
A particular life changing experience happened when I was about 6 years old. My father had committed suicide, leaving my mom, my sister and two of my brothers to fend for ourselves. My mom was a housewife, and so her reliance and partnership was left void by what could appear to be an instant decision. I really don’t want to dwell on it for this blog. Maybe I’ll share it at some other point, but I must continue with my background.
My mom wasn’t my mom anymore. My sister and I had to take care of her and our brothers. We took over, as we had no choice. We cooked, cleaned and cashed the government checks when they arrived. Unfortunately, for all of us, the government intervened at several times. My sister and brothers were separated, not only from our mother but from each other. However, we were not always separated from each other. When she had the energy, our mom fought ferociously to take us back. So, we were in and out of state care throughout our childhood.
When I was younger, I hated that my siblings and I couldn’t be with our mom and when we were with her, there was depression, addiction, and anger. As an adult, I reflect on how strong my mom was for us; however, while I was young, I hadn’t thought so. Now, I realize that my mom was doing what she could with the realities given to her. On top of grieving for losing her husband, she had also been grieving the loss of other family members and been dealing with the struggles of residential school experiences.
In all those years that I was going to different families, schools and communities, I was being told that I should get an education and that I should always help people. I held on to those messages. Long story short, I obtained my education, while having children. It was all a lot of super hard work and I helped people whenever I could.
Throughout all this time, my mom ingrained in me that I would go to law school. I rebelled against her and “only” obtained a bachelors degree. But this dream that she gave me, stayed with me all this time.
After having decided I wouldn’t have any more children and having had a good career, I finally spoke with my common law husband about going to law school. He supported me and continues to do so. I am now in my second year and still have so much to reflect on.
To get back to what I wanted to share, my perspective on a legal education that I am receiving tends to be that of tremendous appreciation. I absolutely know that I shouldn’t be here. The odds were stacked against me. Having said this, I still feel the struggles of being a student. I’m not the wide-eyed naïve person who goes in blindly. The struggles really can be categorized into personal, social and cultural struggles.
Personally, as students, we challenge ourselves to learn everyday. We sacrifice all our time to read cases about lives who have fallen into the legal system. We are forced to reflect on how our own personal history will affect our legal career later. We are always faced with daunting questions and we are always learning to navigate this system that is still so foreign to aboriginal people.
Socially, we go to classes, knowing that there is an “in” and “out” group. We have the rich, privileged students, the other minorities like people with a Muslim heritage, mature students, and (yes) aboriginal students. Socially, everyone likes to appear super smart and super prepared; meanwhile, I bet you all of us, inside, we are all stressed out because we’re all not sure if we focused on the right issue doing our readings. It is too easy to fall through the cracks of existing support mechanisms, by focusing on the social aspect of obtaining a legal education.
Finally, cultural oppression is prevalent. Our legal system is very much still entrenched in colonial history. Like one of my professors said “it is still called the Indian Act” in substantiating why he still uses the term “Indian” in reference to calling Musqueam people, Musqueam Indians.
So you ask, how do I get through this?
I take this legal education as a responsibility. Yes, because my mom said so, but also because aboriginal history demands it. All too often, mainstream Canada is not aware of our realities. And if we keep choosing to be silent about our realities, we are doing a disservice to our future including future aboriginal law students. I am doing what I can for truth and I am doing what I can for reconciliation.
 I am so bad with age. I was 28 for two years. I’m not even 43 and I’ve been telling people that I am, because I sincerely thought I was.
Lori is from Nunavut, she is proud of her Inuit heritage and is hopeful for the future of Nunavut. She has a large family, and super appreciates the support she continues to receive from them as she enters her second year of law school at the University of Ottawa.