Sacha Paul wanted to be a lawyer from the time he was 10, but it was knowing someone from his own community who had reached that goal that made him realize he could be one, too.
"I lived as a kid at the Hollow Water reserve," said Paul, a lawyer with Thompson Dorfman Sweatman LLP. "There was a person from Hollow Water, Loretta Ross, who was a lawyer; she was a part of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry in 1991 as an articling student. The mere fact that she existed was something that my father would always mention, and it was comforting to know that I had walked on the same streets she has walked on. ‘So, this is possible.’"
Planting that seed of possibility is something Paul has been doing since he passed the bar in 2003, and it remains a guiding focus in his new role as vice-president of the Law Society of Manitoba. Paul, 43, is the first Indigenous lawyer to hold the elected position.
"For quite some time, I’ve been interested in terms of increasing Indigenous people in the bar so they can serve the very sizable Indigenous population in Manitoba. This is just a continuation of trying to ensure the law society continues to have the eye on that ball," he said.
Indigenous people represent about 16 per cent of Manitoba’s population, but only five per cent of the province’s 2,000-plus lawyers identify as Indigenous, according to the law society’s latest annual report.
Boosting their ranks starts with tracking the data and "knowing who’s who in the profession," Paul said.
On a more informal level, the law society co-ordinates receptions between Indigenous law students at Robson Hall, the law school at the University of Manitoba, and Indigenous lawyers, "just for the simple purpose of ensuring that those people in law school feel a connection to the bar and feel as though they know who to article with and how to pursue a career.
"But the actual pool of who gets in to law school, that’s a law school matter that we don’t have direct control of, though we are interested in ensuring that happens," Paul said. "That is where the two bodies need to work in some level of harmony and try to make sure the pool is there to serve the public."
Perhaps the biggest challenge to attracting Indigenous students to the law is convincing them a field that for so long was antagonistic to their interests is a viable option.
"The law hasn’t been all that accommodating of Indigenous interests for quite some time," Paul said. "It is a sorry reality that the law has yet to reconcile itself with how it has done harm and can continue to do harm to Indigenous people since the beginning of the country. In a political sense, that could drive people away from the law."
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has called on the law society to overhaul its "good character" process, alleging it is discriminatory and effectively discourages people who are Indigenous, Black or members of other marginalized groups from pursuing a law career.
The process requires applicants to disclose any contact with police or the criminal justice system, including incidents that did not lead to a finding of guilt — a process biased against communities that are over-policed and subject to racial profiling, says the civil liberties association.\
Paul said it’s "worth considering" how the good-character process works, but questioned what impact it has on the number of Indigenous people who go into law.
"By focusing on that issue, it obscures the larger issue, which is the number of Indigenous people who are in the bar," he said. "I don’t think anyone is suggesting that good character is the switch that is going to lead to a dramatic decrease or increase in Indigenous people in the profession."
A robust Indigenous bar can improve communication between communities where understanding has been a challenge, Paul said.
"You are missing what you don’t see," he said. "Indigenous lawyers can pick up things that others might not. Even basic words like ‘Let’s talk about our Indigenous people’ — to use the possessive in that regard can strike some Indigenous people as (offensive). That simple use of a word is not something you are going to get in law school (or) in the profession — it comes from your upbringing… It’s one example of many where there are things going unseen and undetected that only arise when there is an issue. If you can deal with it earlier because of other viewpoints, all the better."
Paul’s own practice has included work with resource developers, including mining and forestry companies and Manitoba Hydro, clients that some would argue are, at times, in conflict with Indigenous interests.
Paul said Indigenous representation on either side of a legal divide can only lead to better understanding.
"One of the important reasons we want to increase the number of Indigenous people in the profession is so that different perspectives and different viewpoints are brought to bear for (clients)," he said.
"I think that can only be to the client’s benefit, whether it’s acting for the chief and community in an election dispute or a resource developer in some permitting process. Ultimately if a conflict arises, that’s why there are courts, and we’ll deal with it.
"That’s also why it’s important to keep on having a flow of people coming in. The younger generations have such important views that as I reach my middle age, it’s good to have that connection."
Someone once said a journalist is just a reporter in a good suit. Dean Pritchard doesn’t own a good suit. But he knows a good lawsuit.