Canku Ota


(Many Paths)


An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


March 10, 2001 - Issue 31



Law School to Give Inuit "Tools to Instigate Change"


by Andrew Duffy The Ottawa Citizen

Some will say they're spoiling paradise, but the Nunavut government intends to establish a law school this year to populate the Arctic territory with Inuit lawyers.

Nunavut Finance Minister Kelvin Ng has announced that $381,000 will be set aside to finance the Akitsiraq Law School. The school, he said, will fill a critical gap in the mostly Inuit territory of 27,000 people: only one Inuk in the territory, Nunavut Premier Paul Okalik, now holds a law degree.

"The Inuit lawyers graduating from this program, whether they work for the government or in the private sector, will have the tools to instigate change that will positively affect the future of Nunavut," Mr. Ng told the Nunavut legislature.

Akitsiraq Law School, which will operate in partnership with the University of Victoria and Nunavut Arctic College, draws its name from the birthplace of traditional Inuit justice.

Near the town of Cape Dorset on Baffin Island is a centuries-old circular stone structure where, according to legend, justice was administered by Inuit elders. The place is known as Akitsiraq.

Nora Sanders, the deputy minister of justice in Nunavut, said the existing Nunavut bar association is "pretty small" with four private lawyers, six legal aid lawyers and a handful of government lawyers and prosecutors. Much of the territory's legal work is now performed by law firms based outside of Nunavut.

"We're unusual in having a shortage of lawyers, but it's a true shortage," Ms. Sanders said yesterday. "And it's a struggle to make sure people have access to the legal services they require."

The justice department is now recruiting students from across the territory for the September launch of the program. Fifteen places are available in the first-year class.

Applicants will be assessed on their academic records, job experience and leadership skills.

Siobhan Arnatsiaq-Murphy, 23, will be among those seeking a placement. Ms. Arnatsiaq-Murphy, a policy analyst in the Nunavut justice department, is also president of the group that spearheaded the drive to bring a law school to Iqaluit.

Like many of the students expected to apply for a placement, Ms. Arnatsiaq-Murphy does not hold an undergraduate degree, which is normally a prerequisite for law school. She's also seven months pregnant.

"I have some very serious thinking to do about whether or not I go for the program in the end," she said yesterday in an interview. "I will be putting in my application, though. Whether or not I get admitted, I don't know."

The Akitsiraq law school has been designed with the needs of Inuit students in mind. Since many are expected to be adults -- and most are expected to have family responsibilities -- the students will be eligible for remarkable bursaries.

Government and corporate sponsors have been enlisted to provide students with a salary equivalent to 70 per cent of that paid to a new government lawyer.

In return for the salary of about $50,000, students must agree to perform legal work for their sponsors during school breaks and for at least two years after graduation. Sponsored students must also agree to spend at least four years after graduation in Nunavut.

The Akitsiraq program will run for four years instead of the usual three to give students a year to adjust to the demands of university. Classes will be taught by visiting professors from the University of Victoria at the Arctic College in Iqaluit.

Nunavut's only lawyer, 36-year-old Premier Paul Okalik, graduated from the University of Ottawa law school four years ago.

"The hardest part about law school was paying for it: I relied on food hampers, I studied hungry and I sometimes didn't have the books," Mr. Okalik told the Citizen in an interview after becoming the territory's first leader.

The youngest of seven children, Mr. Okalik had to overcome both self-doubt and alcoholism to gain his degree. He was expelled in Grade 10 for drinking and, at 17, he was sentenced to three months in jail for breaking into the local post office to steal a bottle of liquor.

The birth of his first daughter a decade ago made Mr. Okalik resolve to change his life. He entered an addiction treatment program and, in the fall of that year, enrolled in Carleton University's political science program. He left with a bachelor's degree three years later and then moved on to law school.

Ms. Sanders said Nunavut needs more success stories like Mr. Okalik's.

"There's a real need for us to have lawyers who can do the work, not only of my department, but legal aid and services to the public in a whole range of areas," said Ms. Sanders. "In the criminal justice system, it would be wonderful to have people who could speak directly to witnesses in their own language."

Government of Canada News Release




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