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Vernon lawyers breaking down barriers to justice

Indigenous lawyer and legal assistant changing the norm of under representation
The lawyers of Martin Estate and Injury Law observe a moment of silence and respect, while Cree lawyer Ethan Wood and Metis UBCO student Abigail Comeau lay shoes and a teddy bear at the memorial to the children who died at residential schools, located at the Vernon Courthouse. (Keylight Photography)

It’s very rare to be both Indigenous and a lawyer.

Ethan Wood has done just that.

The young man of Cree heritage recently graduated from the University of Alberta law school.

He’s now a lawyer at Martin Estate and Injury Law in Vernon.

“My great grandparents met in the Indian Residential Schools, so to me it’s personal,” said Wood.

“My family lost a lot of records because of the ‘60s Scoop. Trying to get documentation from the government is a challenge. I want everyone from Indigenous backgrounds to know what they are capable of achieving.”

Wood, whose parents were teachers, left home at 14 to play hockey across Canada and the USA. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a straight A undergraduate degree.

“I feel disconnected from my heritage sometimes and I wish I knew more,” said Wood. “My identity as an Indigenous person has always made me proud and I tell everyone. Never be ashamed of who you are, know you have the strength inside you to reach your goals.

Wood has an interest in injury law, especially for sexual assault victims, and business law.

Standing beside him is UBC Okanagan co-op student Abigail Comeau, a young Metis woman who works at Martin Estate and Injury Law as a legal assistant.

The aspiring paralegal also has a message for young Indigenous students: “Never think you aren’t good enough. My parents have shared their knowledge with me about being Metis. We are from the Kootenays. I still feel sometimes like I shouldn’t represent people because I have so much to learn.”

Being disconnected from her culture was part of her experience growing up. In studying for a degree in Canadian politics at UBCO, Comeau is wanting to understand how laws are made. In her co-op placement as a legal assistant she is working in family law and wills and estates.

“Being Indigenous doesn’t limit me to one kind of law. I am interested in all kinds of law and in the way law affects everybody in their families and possessions,” said Comeau.

Her interest in law started even earlier when she enrolled at Selkirk College after high school in the two-year law and justice certificate program.

She transferred her credits to UBC to earn a degree.

“I have always been an activist. I want to be able to make a difference, no matter the scale.”

Okanagan lawyer and law firm owner Melody Martin is proud of both Wood and Comeau.

“Not many people know that the first Indigenous lawyer in British Columbia qualified in 1962. I was shocked that it’s so recent. The first Indigenous judge in B.C. was that same lawyer, Alfred Scrow, in 1971.”

Indigenous people were unable to become lawyers because registration on the provincial voter’s list was a requirement – and they weren’t allowed to vote.

Today Indigenous lawyers make up only 2.7 per cent of B.C.’s lawyers, versus their population of 4.6 per cent. This equates to only 359 lawyers self-identifying as Indigenous in the entire province. The lack of Indigenous lawyers in B.C. is a big concern especially given the over representation of Indigenous people in the justice system, children in foster care and more.

That is slowly changing. In August, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau nominated an Indigenous woman lawyer, Michelle O’Bonsawin, to be a judge on the Supreme Court of Canada, the country’s highest court. Also, a record five Indigenous lawyers were recently elected as Benchers of the Law Society, the governing body for B.C.’s 10,000 lawyers. Their successful election recognizes their importance in leading the legal profession.

Martin explains that historically Indigenous people were actually forbidden by law to fundraise for land claims or to hire a lawyer to help them.

“The law turned its back on the people who needed its power to fight injustice,” Martin said. “It’s more than time to change that. We need Indigenous legal professionals to bring their perspectives to the law and make it their own.”

Statistics are not available for Indigenous paralegals, but Comeau wants to make a difference.

“If young people can see what they can become, the power of the law to improve people’s lives and make a difference, they will be inspired to join.”

Jennifer Smith

About the Author: Jennifer Smith

20-year-Morning Star veteran
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