November 24, 2017

The Law Society held its first Truth and Reconciliation Symposium on November 23 where participants shared their ideas on how the legal profession can address systemic biases against Indigenous people and how the Law Society can take action to facilitate reconciliation. More than 450 lawyers, judges, academics and representatives from legal and Indigenous organizations were in attendance.

The event opened with a Coast Salish welcome by Wes Nahanee, Squamish Nation cultural ambassador, followed by an introductory plenary by symposium co-chairs President Herman Van Ommen, QC and Indigenous lawyer Ardith Walkem to set the stage for the day.

Walkem introduced a video titled “But I Was Wearing a Suit" (available below), in which Indigenous lawyers voiced their experiences of discrimination and racial stereotypes. Their stories include being mistaken for clients by court staff and judges, being asked to leave the barristers lounge by other lawyers and having difficulty gaining after-hours access to the Courthouse Libraries. A common theme was being made to feel they do not belong in the legal profession. The video invited participants to consider the question, “If this is how Indigenous lawyers are treated in the legal system, what does that say about how Indigenous clients are treated?”

The dialogue continued as participants broke out into smaller sessions to discuss a wide range of topics, including biases in the practice of law, systemic biases, retention and advancement of Indigenous lawyers, legal aid, international legal standards, Indigenous laws, lawyer education and cultural competence.

At the afternoon key note, the Honourable Judge Steven Point told a number of personal stories to illustrate the ways bias and discrimination are daily occurrences for Indigenous people. He recounted the time city staff, unfamiliar with the Indian Act, came onto his reserve and started building a dam without ever speaking to the Band Council. He expressed grief over the high suicide rates of Indigenous youth and the violence experienced by his family members. Because of the trauma experienced by Indigenous people, he has witnessed that many of them are hesitant to speak to non-Indigenous authority figures, whether in classrooms or in court.

“Reconciliation encompasses the idea of trying to grasp how Aboriginal people experience the world,” Judge Point said. “The justice system has failed to understand Aboriginal people. It has failed to take into account the Aboriginal perspective.”

In closing, Judge Point asked each and every person in attendance to make a change within themselves. “Transformation and change doesn’t begin out there. It begins in here,” he said, pointing to his heart and head. “Individually, changing yourself.”

The symposium wrapped up with facilitators sharing thoughts from the various breakout sessions and suggestions from participants on how to move forward. President Herman Van Ommen, QC stated that the Law Society plans to release a report on the findings from the symposium, with a number of concrete initiatives that it can undertake next year. He further encouraged lawyers to continue their important work and keep the Law Society engaged as it continues its journey in the path towards reconciliation.

The Law Society extends a special thanks to members of the Truth and Reconciliation Advisory Committee, Continuing Legal Education BC’s program lawyer Teresa Sheward for organizing the logistics of the symposium and facilitators Patricia Barkaskas, Tina Dion, Leah George-Wilson, Andrea Hilland, Celeste Haldane, Melissa Louie, Maxine Hayman Matilpi, Dr. Bruce McIvor and Ardith Walkem.

To see video recordings captured at the symposium, click here