The pilot arrives, after he’s stopped along the way to pick up lunches — sandwiches from Tim Horton’s — for the group. The back of the bush plane you’re about to hop on to is filled with all the gear you need to run a courtroom. After flying to the day’s scheduled destination, you’ll set up in whichever facility is most appropriate; some days you might find yourself at the Legion, or perhaps in the elementary school gymnasium. There will be no sitting on the sidelines though. You’re here to represent clients. Welcome to the life of an articling student for legal aid in northern Manitoba.
Chad Skinner decided to follow his heart and take a more adventurous journey. “I come from a small town in Newfoundland where not a lot of people have a whole lot of money, so I’ve seen some people in some pretty disadvantaged situations throughout my whole life. And the whole reason I did the law thing was to help people who were disadvantaged and needed a voice.”
But through law school, you get caught up in the corporate dream, he says. “So I spent most of my time at law school caught in that trap, and sort of going through it and trying to find my way to Bay Street just like everyone else was doing.” But toward the end of his three years at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Skinner says he realized and rediscovered his passion for making a difference. “It wasn’t about sitting in an office somewhere, trading billions of dollars for nameless organizations. It was about helping people — that’s what I wanted to do.”
After speaking with the career development officer at Dal, he discovered a position was available with legal aid in northern Manitoba. He says he thought the job was in Winnipeg, “but I actually found out the position was in Thompson during my first phone consultation.” He jokes that he had to Google it during his conversation to see exactly where it was — about 870 km north of Winnipeg. “It’s really way up there.”
Skinner decided to take a risk. “I just finished law school — it’s a time that if I really want to experience the world, why not do it now. So instead of doing something that was safe, I decided if I’m going to do this, why not test the limits of what I can handle as a person and try this crazy northern adventure and see what I can actually take. See if I can actually go somewhere that I don’t know someone and start off completely fresh, and see if I can make it my own and be successful.”
He was in for quite the ride. “They promise you, ‘if you come here, we’ll give you an experience that you won’t get anywhere else,’” he says of the legal aid articling program, “‘and we’ll give you the articling experience of your dreams. We’ll give you all the work experience and the teaching you could possibly get.’” He has yet to be disappointed.
A typical day is hard to describe, says Skinner, because there’s no rigid structure. He recently completed his criminal law rotation, which he says made him feel extremely involved. Normally, three days a week are spent travelling for circuit court. “I’m dealing with charges — everything from simple assault and mischief right up to working on two murder files right now, which I was assigned.” He says by showing some initiative and interest, his principle searched out cases for him to get involved in. “It’s just been an incredible experience,” says Skinner.
Because there’s no routine, his time in the north is flying by, he says. “You’re going to work every day, but when you’re showing up for duty counsel, it could be for anything.” The morning flights into the various communities can be anywhere from half an hour to two hours. “If there’s any work to do, I can do it on the plane, or I can sit back and read a book or listen to music to compose myself or prepare for the day ahead of me,” he says.
Skinner says judges and practising lawyers don’t look down on him and fellow articling student Lori O’Connor (also a Dal law graduate). “As articling students within the organization [northern Manitoba legal aid], we’re given great levels of respect, and responsibility, and trust. But when we step outside of the office and go to court, we’re treated in that same way by everyone else.”
During their first days in court, Skinner says the judge took them into chambers following the session to chat about how they had done, what their strengths had been, and how they could improve. “Not once have I had that feeling where I was like, ‘oh, I’m just the lowly articling student.’”
Skinner says living in a remote area can be tough, but fortunately he has frequent access to Winnipeg for seminars and the bar course. “I have to admit, it was incredibly terrifying, but at the same time, the terror was good because I was in a position in my life where I wanted to challenge my personal limits, I wanted to see what I could handle, I wanted to see if I could do it.”
And then there’s the weather. “The thing about northern Manitoba is that it’s cold beyond my wildest imagination. The outfit that I wear to fly to circuit court is the same outfit that people on the Discovery Channel wear to go to Antarctica.
“We still take the law very seriously in the north, and everyone here is working very hard and doing amazing work, but just the nature of where we’re forced to do it makes for an interesting situation,” says Skinner. Speaking of his circuit court locations, he says “it’s all very professional and run very well, but at the same time, there might be a disco ball hung over the court party because there was someone’s wedding social the night before."