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Editorial: Building bridges

A few months ago, I was looking for a writer in Saskatoon to help with our Saskatoon city report. Some colleagues suggested I reach out to Mervin Brass, which I did. He grew up on the Key First Nation and is currently the editor and publisher of Treaty 4 News, so he’s steeped in the news and culture of aboriginal Canadians. While we were chatting about the Saskatoon story, Brass suggested Canadian Lawyer do something about the many lawyers who’ve worked with First Nations people who had the misfortune of being sent to Indian residential schools.

Much ink had been spilled over a few lawyers and other groups that had taken advantage of the process and profited at the expense of claimants in the Independent Assessment Process.

But, as Brass suggested, there were a whole lot of lawyers who had worked with the victims of the residential schools and made a very positive impact on their lives, including that of his father. That story should be told, he suggested.

A few months later, in looking for an article for the cover of this September issue, I thought it would be a good time to tell some of those stories. In the interim, the initial report of the Truth and Reconcilliation Commission had been released, a conversation was starting on campuses about how to take the report’s recommendations and bring them in to legal education, and Canadians were talking about the issue of the rights of First Nations people and their role in this country. The time was right.

So I was very pleased to hear, and for Canadian Lawyer to highlight, the stories of Eleanor Sunchild, Jeff Scott, and others. Scott was one of the first members of the legal profession to give former residential school students both an ear and a voice. And as I’ve heard many times from counsel, it was the listening and hearing that was almost the most important part of the process for people whose lives, families, and culture had been, in some cases, destroyed by their experiences. “I was told by my clients I was the first individual they felt they could trust and really come out with all the details as to what occurred. They needed to tell me in order for me to be able to fully represent them,” Scott told Brass. “For a lot of these clients, it wasn’t even just the compensation, it was the acknowledgment that this occurred to them and it had to be addressed.”

I and most Canadians won’t ever understand what happened to the children who were sent to the residential schools. We’ll never truly understand the effects these schools had on their lives and families. But the role lawyers have played has been an integral part of bringing their stories into the open and having those stories treated seriously, as well as assisting in getting compensation for their suffering. There is still much to be done for the healing to continue and there are still legal battles to fight. In June, hundreds of First Nations people who were “day scholars” at the residential schools and, therefore, left out of the compensation system had a class action against the government certified in British Columbia.

The discussion, as well, about training would-be lawyers to better understand the law in relation to indigenous people and to introduce dimensions of indigenous law is gaining momentum at law schools across the country. Understanding more, knowing more, being open, and respecting all legal traditions and cultures can only be beneficial to everyone in the justice system and society.