Bright future for Nunavut PLTC student

  Sandra Omik
  Sandra Omik accepts her University of Victoria law degree at a special convocation in Iqaluit, Nunavut on June 21, 2005. (Photo: Greg Younger-Lewis)
   

After finishing the Professional Legal Training Course, Sandra Omik, one of 11 graduates from Nunavut’s Akitsiraq Law School, is now looking forward to reaching the end of her long journey to become a lawyer. It officially began when she left her home in the small Inuit community of Pond Inlet (on the north end of Baffin Island), stepped onto a plane and embarked on a three-hour flight to her territory’s capital, Iqaluit (on the southern end of Baffin Island). Now, after studying law in Iqaluit for four years, completing her degree and having taken PLTC, Sandra is articling with Justice Canada and training to become a prosecutor. She said she feels like she’s on the cusp of “a new beginning” and she’s excited about having the tools she needs to initiate new ideas in Nunavut’s legal community.

Prior to starting law school, the 33-year-old mother of two was a court worker in Pond Inlet for several years. She was often frustrated by the limitations of the legal system and said, “when you have someone right in front of you and you have to tell them, ‘I’m sorry, legal aid can’t help you with your complaint,’ it’s hard.” Sandra said they thought legal aid was there to help with everything, and “it was very hard for me as an Inuit person to tell them in Inuktitut something they couldn’t understand. But I was only an interpreter for the lawyer, I was only the messenger, but seeing their disappointed faces I felt angry that I couldn’t help them.” One of the reasons Sandra decided to attend law school was to help people who needed legal assistance, but weren’t getting any under the current system.

PLTC, taught in Iqaluit by Law Society of BC instructor Ian Guthrie, was a crucial step in preparing Sandra for becoming a lawyer. Of her experience, Sandra said, “I expected to just read material and do a big exam at the end like what you see on TV, but it was very different.” Among other things, Sandra credits Ian with teaching her how to handle a civil lawsuit. “There are hardly ever any civil suits here,” said Sandra, “so you never really see them, and Ian really helped us to understand the process from the beginning to the end.”

The students conducted a mock civil trial involving a dispute between two neighbours over a sequoia tree. Sandra praised Ian’s patience with the class as they struggled to suppress their laughter, because there aren’t any trees in the territory, and the students didn’t even know what a sequoia tree looked like. Sandra soon confirmed for herself that the tree was no laughing matter. “Right after PLTC I had to do a chambers application while on my articles, and I ended up saying to myself, ‘thank God I argued for that tree, because I now know how to do a chambers application.’ The whole experience of PLTC was very useful.”

Until the Akitsiraq program, there was only one Inuk lawyer in Nunavut — Premier Paul Okalik — and the others came from “the south,” which is what local people call the rest of Canada outside of the territories. As someone who understands both Canada’s legal system and Inuit ways of handling conflict, Sandra is now acting as a bridge between those “southern lawyers” and the community. While articling, she recently sent all the lawyers in town a letter explaining a misunderstanding in court.

The Inuit elders were recommending through an interpreter that an offender be sent to live “out on the land” in a hunting camp. The prosecutor and judge interpreted that as a lenient punishment and dismissed the idea. Sandra sent a letter explaining the elders’ recommendation was not “like getting a trip to Hawaii,” and that while living “out on the land” the offender must embrace traditional Inuit values of harmony and peace and learn to live within the camp or face the possibility of perishing in the elements. Sandra told the lawyers that when you’re living in a harsh climate and hunting for food there can’t be conflict because it undermines everyone’s goal of survival. If the offender were to start misbehaving, he or she would be cast out of the camp which, according to Sandra, is a “far harsher punishment than jail,” because without the support of the group there is a real risk outcasts will die in the cold or starve to death.

Sandra’s long-term dream is to build a cabin with gas generators powerful enough to run a fax machine and computer and then to set herself up as a sole practitioner in Pond Inlet. But she doubts that will ever happen because, for one thing, she would have trouble earning enough money to cover her expenses. One of the difficulties of practising in a small community, according to Sandra, is that “everyone knows everyone, and most people think I should help them because they’re my relative, or my friend. They don’t understand the concept that I would need to charge them by the hour.” Still, Sandra is not tempted by stories of lawyers earning big money “in the south,” and has no plans to leave her home territory of Nunavut.

One of the goals of the Akitsiraq program was to create not just lawyers, but community leaders. Sandra has already done a lot of work in Pond Inlet; she was appointed the Chief Commissioner of the Nunavut Law Review Commission in 1999 and was selected in 2002 by Maclean’s magazine as a leader of tomorrow. She has signed a two-year contract with Justice Canada that will start after she completes her articles. Unlike some of her fellow graduates who have ambitions of becoming community leaders outside the field of law, she has no desire to get into politics.

Sandra said she is happy using the skills she gained at law school and PLTC to try and make a difference for Inuit people from within the legal system, and she’s proud of being so near to accomplishing her goal of being an Inuk lawyer practising in Nunavut.