TRU student getting first-hand enviro law experience in Alaska

TRU law student Brianna Meyer is spending the summer with the 70 tribal and First Nation communities in Alaska. Brianna Meyer was raised surrounded by nature in the coastal town of Powell River, B.C. Now we are colleagues as JD candidates at the Thompson Rivers University Faculty of Law.

Meyer is not one to speak often in class, yet she projects a quiet confidence and effortless affability. During her studies at the University of Victoria, she was drawn towards exploring humanity’s interaction with the natural environment. Meyer is an intern, summering in the stark, ceaseless daylight of Anchorage, Alaska.

Her internship is with Canadian Lawyers Abroad, an organization she has followed keenly for many years. Much of her time is spent with the 70 tribal and First Nation communities researching land acquisition models and opening dialogues about water quality. These 70 communities constitute the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council (YRITWC).

The Yukon River is the third largest in North America, roughly half of the 195-million cubic kilometre Yukon River watershed is within Canada.

Her commitment to environmentalism is not simply a product of her upbringing in British Columbia, a place she aptly described as a “resource powerhouse.” Originally pursuing a career in nutrition science, she says studying the effect of food on the human body imbued “larger questions about the environmental and social injustices embedded in our food system.”

These questions shifted her studies to environmental science. Law school further narrowed her focus where Meyer says she “quickly realized that environmental law cannot and should not be studied in isolation from aboriginal law.”

The combination of an environmental science background and one year of legal studies yielded academic and practical experience, which primed Meyer for the internship

“My legal research skills and the knowledge I gained about aboriginal rights and title from Property and Constitutional law classes greatly informed my understanding of many issues facing Alaskan tribes,” she says.

I posed the fundamental law school question to her: what is the legal issue in this case?

“My research in this area explores the benefits and potential harmful effects of adopting trusts as a land holding system in Alaska. Present law in Alaska bars the acquisition of land in trust for Indian tribes and individuals other than the Metlakatla Indian Community,” she says. “This exemption is specific to Alaska. Regulations preventing Alaskan tribes from holding lands in trust were challenged. The Department of the Interior published a new rule withdrawing the regulation in December 2014. However, the case remains on appeal.”

Even at this early stage of research, Meyer offers a prediction for the ideal outcome with respect to land ownership models for those in the YRITWC.

“With the recognition of aboriginal title this year for the first time in Canadian history, the game is changing across the border,” she says.

The dialogue she is opening with the tribal and First Nations communities constitutes a continuing assertion of sovereignty.

“The assertion of tribal sovereignty is a key step in reconciling past and present land ownership models. The removal of the exemption that currently bars Alaska natives from holding lands in trust is a step in the direction of resolution but is by no means the ideal,” notes Meyer.

Just as humans dwell within a larger natural environment, legal issues dwell within a broader legal context. Meyer observes that access to legal services, especially for rural tribal communities, remains an extraordinary challenge.

The Native American Rights Fund works to bring litigation and advocacy services to rural Alaskan communities. Even with increased access to legal services, Meyer laments the cumbersome and complex implications of the 1971 legislation (Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act) governing the current land holding system.

“I am starting my second year of law school and still struggling to understand the implications of that piece of legislation,” she says. “I cannot imagine the confusion in approaching that situation without a legal background — which every single tribe in Alaska has to do.”

For those students who aspire to pursue similar opportunities, Meyer advises, “don’t be scared of unpaid internships!” She was diligent in applying for federal funding, grants, and bursaries before actually being granted the internship.

“Law school is expensive, but it is important to remember there is plenty of learning and growth that takes place outside the traditional law firm context,” she points out.

With her limited free time she explores the wilderness of Alaska, always bringing “someone who is a slower runner than me” as protection from bears.

Meyer is confident in the value of this opportunity for her future practice in environmental law.

“This internship has only strengthened my conviction in pursuing a career in the field,” she says.

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