Deputy grand chief Derek Fox and other leaders of Nishnawbe Aski Nation and Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug have criticized the appointment of Superior Court of Justice George Patrick Smith as the interim dean of the school. According to a statement issued by the Indigenous leaders, Smith sentenced “Chief [Donny] Morris and five members of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug Council to prison in 2008 during the community’s lengthy fight to protect their traditional territory from mining activity,” according to the media release from the groups.
In April, Angelique EagleWoman — the first Indigenous dean of law at a Canadian school — resigned from her position leading the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.
After EagleWoman submitted her resignation, she said she’d been a “victim of systemic racism” at the school, which led her to leave the position of dean after two years in the role.
Fox, a lawyer who is also the deputy grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, says that, in the aftermath of EagleWoman’s resignation, not enough has been done to build relationships with Indigenous groups in selecting EagleWoman’s replacement and improving the situation for students at the school.
“I’d like to see both Lakehead University and the law school work with the Indigenous advisory committee on better relationships,” says Fox. “First of all, there’s an issue with the new hiring of the interim dean in which we were never consulted and that’s important because the Indigenous partners were instrumental in getting this law school. Without the Indigenous partners, this law school wouldn’t exist, so they’re just kind of turning their backs on us now that they got the law school.”
Fox is a graduate of the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Law, Robson Hall. He graduated in 2012 and was called to the bar in 2014, before being elected to the role of deputy grand chief in 2015 and as a member of an Indigenous advisory committee to the law school.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation is made up of 49 First Nations in northwestern Ontario and has a population of about 50,000 people who live on-reserve. Fox says Indigenous people in Thunder Bay experience high levels of racism, and the environment at the law school needs to be improved.
“No one wants to see anything bad happen to the law school. They just want to see it continue in the way that it was supposed to,” says Fox.
“We live in a time where there’s all this talk of reconciliation and it’s improving relationships with First Nations and Indigenous peoples, and we haven’t really made any strides forward. . . it’s an extremely racist environment in our city and in our university, and it’s a reality check and wake-up call for everyone.”
The news release from the leaders of Nishnawbe Aski Nation and Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, including Fox, criticized the appointment of Smith as the interim dean of the school. Smith was appointed to the bench in 2001 for the northwest region of Ontario, and he had been a partner with Buset & Partners before that, practising mainly in family law.
In the case involving Morris, members of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug Council, Platinex Inc. v. Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation (2008), Smith sentenced Morris and Jack McKay, Bruce Sakakeep, Darryl Sainnawap, Cecilia Begg, Samuel McKay, Enus McKay and Evelyn Quequish to six months in jail for contempt of court.
The dispute centred around a disagreement about a mining company’s exploration of an area of Big Trout Lake, and efforts by Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug to stop any exploration from occurring.
“The most significant aggravating factor to be considered in the cases before the court is the public and open declaration by the contemnors that the order of this court or of any court will not be respected or obeyed if it allows exploration or drilling on its traditional land. All have adopted the position of Chief Morris and all have stated that they will continue to defy the orders of this court,” said Smith in the ruling.
“It is this public and open defiance of the rule of law and order of this court that is the most disturbing aspect of this case and which comes perilously close to criminal contempt. I find that incarceration is the only appropriate sanction. All contemnors lack the ability to pay a fine. Because the conduct of all contemnors is flagrant and defiant and will be repeated. This is not a case where a short term of imprisonment is warranted,” added the ruling.
Fox says Smith’s appointment was an “insult” and ignored recommendations recently delivered by the advisory committee to the school that no roles be filled without feedback from Indigenous groups.
“We were ignored,” he says.
A spokesman for Lakehead University, Brandon Walker, says the university is not commenting on the issue.
“Lakehead will not be offering comment at this time, while we reach out to Indigenous leaders to discuss the situation,” he says.