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The First Nations connection

|Written By Jean Sorensen

Community support and expectations both pushed aboriginal student Doug White toward the law.

Listen to 37-year-old B.C. articling student Doug White talk about how law has shaped his life today and the word “community” comes up repeatedly in the conversation. “A sense of community is important to First Nations people,” he says, and it’s that dedication to his community that has inspired him to practice law as it relates to First Nations issues. “This is still really a whole new field,” says White, who is articling with Victoria’s Devlin Gailus Barristers and Solicitors, specializing in First Nations issues. “The aspect of common law that deals with First Nations is still very nascent, and has been vigorously developing since s. 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 entrenched aboriginal and treaty rights.”

One of the earliest and most significant cases was fought in White’s own First Nations community, Snuneymuxw in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. It was the 1965 landmark case Regina v. White and Bob, which was won when the Supreme Court of Canada upheld a B.C. Court of Appeal ruling. The decision found that early agreements inked by B.C.’s first governor and Hudson Bay chief factor James Douglas were treaties within the meaning of the Indian Act and recognized First Nations peoples’ rights to hunt in exclusion of the B.C. Game Act. The case involved Clifford White, a relation of Doug White’s grandfather, Chief Douglas White I, who was chief of the Snuneymuxw at the time.

“That case became part of our community and family history,” he says, as it was told to him and discussed in the community. It drew in prominent figures, such as Tom Berger, who served as counsel on the treaty-rights case, Guy Williams, president of the Native Brotherhood of B.C., and former MP and MLA Dr. Frank Calder, a Nisga’a Nation member who in 1973 would bring forward, along with Berger, the seminal Calder case on aboriginal title that took up the legal arguments first put before the courts in R. v. White and Bob.

The rich environment of discussion and debate — also fuelled by uncle and lawyer Hugh M.G. Braker — eventually led White into law after spending 10 years working as a consultant for First Nations groups and on related issues. Many of these issues involved legal matters, such as treaty negotiations, treaty-implementation planning, electoral-law development, and constitutional- and legislative-development land-claims research.

White completed his BA in First Nations studies (with distinction) at Malaspina College. He graduated from the University of Victoria’s law faculty in December 2006, but is currently working on a master’s degree in public administration, which is expected to be complete in spring 2008. While White carried a hefty load of courses at university and also worked at his consulting business, he never lost sight of the need to remain attached to community and outside interests.

“It is important to me to stay connected by working for my community, because law school is three years out of your life,” he says. In Victoria, he became a board member for the local Cool Aid Society, which provides shelter, medical aid, and other social  support systems for the homeless, many of whom are aboriginals drawn to urban cities from rural communities. Such work helped provide insight into many of the problems that the courts deal with today. “It definitely helps you keep a good perspective on why you are in school. It is easy to get lost and spend years in the library reading books and cases — although that is important as well — but I felt it was just as important to connect the information you are learning with the real world,” he says.

At the University of Victoria, he was president of the Indigenous Law Student Association. The law faculty has 30 to 40 aboriginal students from B.C. and across Canada. “I live on Vancouver Island and was fortunate to be relatively close to home, but a lot of students came from Ontario, up north, and the prairies and could not get home to their communities,” he says, adding many are young singles with no relatives in B.C. The association played a social and networking role through activities such as a welcoming potlatch for new students at Victoria’s Mungo Martin-built longhouse and a year-end feast. “It allows senior indigenous law students to support and mentor the incoming indigenous students,” he says.

He also formed an Indigenous Law Club at UVic, which drew in faculty, plus indigenous and non-indigenous students. “It gave everyone a place to come together and talk about indigenous legal issues,” he says. (Their first event was a 40th anniversary celebration of the R. v. White and Bob case which included a visit and talk by Berger.)

White’s activities have earned him recognition scholastically at UVic and throughout the greater community. He has served as a guest lecturer and speaker on aboriginal affairs at Malaspina and Royal Roads University, a panelist at UVic law and public administration conferences, and was a member of the 2006 UVic Law Kawaskimhon Moot team. He was the recipient of the Petro-Canada Aboriginal Education Award, the Chief Michael A. Underwood Memorial Scholarship, the Honorable Thomas A. Dohm Shield, the Keith B. Jobson Award, and the Langford-Seaborne Scholarship. He is a member of the Indigenous Bar Association.

 “It’s been a busy number of years,” he says of the rigors of moving through law school and into articling. But he credits three strong pillars of support. “The first is my family — they were my inspiration and support,” he says, including his new wife Anisa, whom he met in his second year of law school and married in December. A strong family network also helped him fulfil his duties as a father to his sons Eliot, 11, and Ethan, 9, and generally provided “emotional and spiritual support”, he says.

The second major support came from “the amazing group of professors at UVic,” he says, adding that since the university’s enrolment of law students is less than that at larger Canadian institutions, students have more “open-door” time with instructors, many of whom are considered leading lights in aboriginal legal issues and studies. “Individuals such as Prof. John Borrows, who is internationally recognized as a leading scholar on aboriginal law; it was an honour and privilege to be able to study at a school where he taught. Prof. Jeremy Webber is another internationally respected professor,” he says, grateful for the time to form relationships and be inspired by their achievements.

The third pillar of support is more of a family expectation that he fulfil an obligation to the community. “It’s difficult to describe,” he says, but ever since he was young, his grandparents and parents had always told him he was expected to serve his community. “I was always told about the responsibility that I had to my people. I was encouraged to obtain the skills to do the best work that I can on their behalf. Having that direction in my background made the decision to go to law school easy and also provided me with the motivation to stay focused to complete my degree,” he says.

White, whose Coast Salish name is Kwul’a’sul’tun and Nuu-chah-nulth name is Tlii’shin, plans to work in aboriginal law. Devlin Gailus “does exactly the kind of work that I want to do for the kind of clients I want to work for in the future, and I hope to continue working for them,” he says.