Lawyer’s practice includes acting for First Nations and Métis governments
Founder of Cochrane Saxberg LLP, Harold “Sonny” Cochrane is the first Cree lawyer appointed Queen’s Counsel in Manitoba’s history. He told Canadian Lawyer about his practice, which includes acting for First Nations and Métis governments, and working to reform the province’s child welfare system.
Could you tell me a bit about where you grew up?
I grew up on a on a reserve about three hours north of Winnipeg. It's a place called Fisher River. And it's a very close-knit community. There are about 2,000 people now on the reserve. I lived there until I was 16 years old. I went to school there, played hockey there, played all my sports there. It's where my roots are, still to this day. My family is there.
Why did you decide to pursue a legal career?
The Chief and Council used to often come over to my parents’ house on the reserve. I was a young boy at the time, and I would just sit and listen. One time, they were talking about some legal matters. And they were complaining about the lawyers they had. They didn't really understand the issues. One of the elected council members turned to me in the corner and said, “You know, Sonny, we need our own lawyer.”
So that is what sparked my interest in becoming a lawyer. Of course, then, I had no clue really what a lawyer did or how a person became a lawyer. There were certainly no lawyers in my family, no lawyers Fisher River, so I had no real legal role-models to follow.
My parents have played a really important role in my life. My Dad was taken to residential school and my Mom was in the federal day school system. Their experiences were not positive at all in the education system. But despite that, education was very important to them and [that was] instilled in me growing up. I know where credit's due. I wouldn't be where I am, if it weren't for them. There's no doubt about that.
Did you have any experiences in law school or early in your legal career that were especially formative in path you've taken since?
When I graduated from law school, at that time, I was the only First Nation lawyer in private practice. So, I really didn't have an Indigenous lawyer that I was able to follow.
So, for me, when I first graduated from law school, I had opportunities to go work in-house, at Tribal Councils or different political organizations. But I knew I wanted to be a practising lawyer.
There were times when I wasn't sure if I had made the right decision, because I had classmates at the time, Indigenous classmates, who came out of law school and they were doing quite well financially and after being a starving student for 10-plus years or so, it caused me at times to question if I'd made the right decision staying in private practice. Because in private practice for number of years, you're really just in training so you're not making a lot of money.
There were certain lawyers along the way that I learned from how to be lawyer, how to manage clients, how to how to manage and develop a practice in law — non-Indigenous lawyers. So, I've had help along the way.
Can you tell me about your practice area and the types of clients you represent?
Some of the important work that I do daily is act for the only self-governing first nation in the prairie provinces. It's a First Nation here in Manitoba. And we're doing some very interesting ground-breaking work. We're drafting and developing Indigenous law, which in a lot of ways is unprecedented. We're doing a child welfare law. And the objective there is to replace the provincial child welfare regime with Indigenous law. One that's more focused on preserving families, keeping the families healthy and using the resources in the Indigenous community, which does not happen now under the current provincial system. And really the goal there is to keep children home, keep them connected to the culture.
I also do land claim work, and I've acted for settlement trusts. That's also very rewarding because what it's doing in the end is it's correcting an historical wrong. And the benefits from that, there's economic development, there's employment, there's purchasing of land, and it's really then creating an economic base for the Indigenous communities.
I do a lot of child protection work, which is where we’re acting for the Indigenous child welfare agencies. And that's very, very tough work because we're dealing with people and families who are broken, but also dealing with a system that's based on provincial values, that don't always align with the Indigenous values and customs. So, a lot of times, practicing that type of law is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It always doesn't fit neatly with how things are done in the Indigenous community. So, we've had to be very creative, trying to keep families together and children safe within a provincial system that isn't always aligned with those goals.
And then, we do a lot of business development. I've been involved in the development of casinos on Indigenous territories, hydro-dam negotiations. I've been part of those legal teams, setting up businesses for individuals and Indigenous governments as well has been important.
We're a full-service firm. We could pretty much do any kind of work that comes to us from our clients. But that's the practice. It’s a practice I enjoy very much.
We are Manitoba’s largest Indigenous law firm. We've got were a younger group. Half our lawyers are Indigenous. Half are women lawyers. And you know, it’s a very, very good environment, they're all dedicated to, to our areas of practice and that is to hopefully improve the lives of Indigenous people.
You have mentioned elsewhere that there is a need for more Indigenous lawyers. Can you comment on that?
Certainly, there is a need. When I was when I graduated in 1995, most of the lawyers back then would graduate and they would go into in-house legal counsel positions, which is great, I'm not disparaging that. The number of Indigenous lawyers now in private practice, I can see starting to grow.
What we do need, I believe, is some real, experienced lawyers, we need Indigenous lawyers to come out of law school, to really cut their teeth and to learn lawyering skills. I think it's really important because the needs of our people are so varied. And I know that our people would prefer to have one of their own acting as the legal counsel. But to do that properly, I think you do need to have the experience. So I'm hoping that the younger lawyers coming up, take their time to work in the trenches, to work second-seat on trials for a number of years, to learn that skill, because in the long run, that's what we need.
If seeing me being appointed as QC is helps in that way or as an inspiration to some of them, then great.
You act for Indigenous organizations. You have spoken elsewhere about Canada and Indigenous governments having differing interpretations of the Treaties. Can you tell me about the dynamics between Indigenous governments and Canada that you have experienced?
If you were to do an internet search now on the Treaties, what you'll get is the written text. And if you read the written text, it talks about extinguishment of rights and becoming subjects of the crown. What you don't see is the other side. And there's a whole other side that exists that the law is now starting to appreciate. It's important to have that understanding, particularly if you're acting for Indigenous people because the First Nation people certainly don't see the treaties as an extinguishment document. They see the treaty relationship as one that's based on sharing and mutual respect. However, if you read the written text of the treaties, that's not reflected. That's important for lawyers to understand and to appreciate.
The one thing I believe has been invaluable during my legal career. And that is, I grew up on the reserve. I was a kid, no different than any other kid on any reserve in Canada. And that has that has served me well, in my legal career. Because I've lived there, I know firsthand, the culture, the issues that face Indigenous people.
Any lawyer can learn the law. That's what we're trained to do in law school. The one thing, I always say, you can't learn or can't teach is the life experiences that you get from living and growing up on the reserve with the people. There's an appreciation you get — how to talk to people, the humour. It's all important when you're acting for Indigenous people.
*Answers have been shortened