Linda Locke’s road from social worker and court worker to lawyer championing Indigenous justice

Indigenous lawyer wins award from CBA's B.C. branch

Linda Locke’s road from social worker and court worker to lawyer championing Indigenous justice
Linda Locke is a lawyer with the Upper Skeena Counselling and Legal Assistance Society

It took several years of working as a social worker and court worker to determine what she was destined for, but B.C. lawyer Linda Locke, KC, says it ultimately was all part of laying the groundwork for her role in improving justice for Indigenous people. 

“I had no intention or even thought of becoming a lawyer, as I thought it was for ‘white people’ and primarily a role for men,” says Locke, who recently received the Georges A. Goyer Memorial Award for Distinguished Service from the Canadian Bar Association’s B.C. branch, the “most esteemed recognition” it can give a member.

“I wanted to serve people and help improve their health and wellbeing,” she says. “I experienced some rough patches in my life, and I survived them. These experiences built the empathy I have for others now.”

Locke, a member of the Peters Band of the Sto:lo people, is a lawyer with the Upper Skeena Counselling and Legal Assistance Society. For more than 30 years, with limited staff and funding, she has provided legal assistance to primarily Indigenous clients throughout a large, remote area.

She also played an instrumental role in establishing the Hazelton Indigenous Sentencing Court, a specialized provincial court for Indigenous people charged with criminal offences.

Locke’s prior roles as a court worker with the Elizabeth Fry Society in Kelowna and with the Ministry of Attorney General as a probation officer, family court counsellor and youth worker gave her experience on the ground within the criminal justice system.

After many years of academic study and on-the-ground experience, Locke felt she could be an agent of change in a “static, unjust criminal justice system—I felt I had a purpose.”

Locke first worked as a social worker at the Canadian Institute for the Blind in Winnipeg. She later moved to Kelowna to work for the Elizabeth Fry Society, where she says she found her “zeal for justice,” then took on roles with the Ministry of the Attorney General.

In her various roles, Locke assisted people, many Indigenous, who were in conflict with the law. She witnessed how the criminal justice system worked as she interacted with Indigenous court workers, those who had come into conflict with the system, and lawyers and judges.

Some of the lawyers she met encouraged her to go to law school. At first, Locke says, she felt intimidated by the idea, but after seeing lawyers in action, “I thought, yes, I could do this, and perhaps even better with a social work background.”

She adds: “I saw how hard the lawyers worked in court for their clients and in local community activities such as board involvement. I also saw how hard the role was for some lawyers caring for their clients. I concluded that some lawyers were not only warriors for the good, improving the law and fairness for their clients, but were also providing ‘service’ for humanity.”

Locke obtained her law degree at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Although somewhat fearful of “taking on the power of a lawyer by swearing allegiance to a foreign crown, I ran with it.”

Locke says her family background prepared her to become a lawyer advocating for Indigenous peoples. She says the Sto:lo is a “very strong matriarchal” society, so understands how women can make a difference. Her role models, grandparents Emma and William, were “extremely hardworking and honest in their interactions with others” and stayed “true to their beliefs and practices” even though they came from a residential school background and experienced many losses - including the loss of children and culture.

As a child, she also observed how negatively her family members were treated when away from their reserve. “I did not understand and felt ashamed of myself. It took years to move this ‘shame’ out of my being.”

In law school, Locke says she learned about the Canadian Indian Act and the “genocide of Indigenous families, culture and language.”

She says, “I recall one of the professors saying ‘shush’ and holding his index finger against his lips when I asked him about the genocidal practice of removing Indigenous children from their families, cultures, languages and homes. This professor was a kind man, but his response hit me like a sledgehammer. I knew then what my role was going forward from law school.” 

Locke says it was a “long time coming” to create the Hazelton Indigenous Court, with many meetings of Gitxsan, Wet’suwet’en resource people, court services workers, lawyers, crown counsel, judges and elders.

“Our Upper Skeena Counselling & Legal Assistance Society 0president James Angus kept pounding the desk at each of our board meetings,” she says. Eventually, funding was given by the Law Foundation of British Columbia, which helped support committees to encourage elder participation, policy development, Elder training and court navigator support.

“It took us about nine years to fully implement the Hazelton Indigenous Court, she says: “Elders who are part of it work closely with their partners to make a difference for Indigenous individuals who find themselves in conflict with the law.”

Locke adds that the Hazelton Indigenous Court can potentially make even more positive changes in the criminal justice system for Indigenous peoples.

Still, there is more to do, especially in a region that has striking scenery but is isolated and needs more lawyers and support services for both Indigenous and Non-indigenous people in the area.

Indigenous people are also needed to participate more in the provincial and federal justice systems - elders, healers, programmers, support people and Indigenous knowledge speakers. More generally, there is also a need for answers to food security issues and poverty, more education, and addictions and mental health support.

Ongoing support, as well, is necessary for Indigenous children who have lost their parents through overdoses, conflicts with the justice system and health challenges to ensure they have the resources to help them “learn their identities and history and provide hope that will enable them to move forward into healthy, productive and active lives.”      

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