Adam Fiddler knew he wanted to be a lawyer from the time he was eight years old.
The First Nations law student remembers the buzz around the constitutional talks that led to the patriation of the constitution in 1982.
“As a child I had no idea what was going on, but just from watching TV, I could feel something important was happening,” he says.
Fiddler grew up in Sandy Lake, a remote First Nations community in Northern Ontario.
He later spent some time working as a journalist with CBC in Thunder Bay, Ont., before moving his family back to Sandy Lake, where he was elected to council and eventually became chief.
It was not until 2012, when Lakehead University opened its law school, that he decided to return to Thunder Bay to pursue law studies. He was set to be one of the program's first graduates this May and credits the young institution's location for his decision to go into law.
“If Lakehead had not opened a law school, I would not be in law today,” he says, adding that he’s just a “small-town person” who would have never moved to a big city in southern Ontario for law school.
Fiddler is one of few aboriginal students who have enrolled in the province’s law schools recently.
A Law Times survey of six of the province’s law schools indicates 139 students registered over the last five years who self-identify as aboriginal.
The law schools surveyed were Osgoode Hall Law School, the University of Ottawa, Queen’s University, the University of Toronto, Western Law, and the University of Windsor.
These students account for 1.6 per cent of the total number who enrolled in those years, in a province where aboriginal people make up two per cent of the total population, according to the 2011 National Household Survey.
The Bora Laskin Faculty of Law at Lakehead University was not included in these totals, as it has only been open for three years. In those years, Lakehead’s law school has had 12 students enrolled who self-identify as aboriginal, which accounts for six per cent of its student population.
Angelique EagleWoman, the dean of Lakehead’s law school, says the geographic constraints of where law schools are situated in Ontario can be a barrier stopping aboriginal people from applying, especially for those who live in remote northern communities.
“Many aboriginal students face barriers in becoming equipped to enter law school when they are in remote communities. Requiring young teens to travel to distant towns to complete high school is a major disincentive,” she says.
“Thus, the pool of eligible students from aboriginal communities shrinks at the secondary level.
Innovations such as distance education classrooms and online courses would be steps in the right direction."
Fiddler says he would like to see an Ontario school introduce a preliminary program to help aboriginal students prepare for law school, like the University of Saskatchewan’s Program of Legal Studies for Native People. The program has helped more than 1,300 aboriginal people get ready for law school since it was founded in 1973, when there were a mere four aboriginal lawyers and five law students in the country, according to the PLSNP’s web site.
Gillian Calder, an associate dean of the University of Victoria’s law school, says Canadian law schools need to find ways to make their learning environment more open and engaging for aboriginal students.
“Having a curriculum that engages directly in colonialism and takes up these difficult questions — not just of it as a past practice but as a current practice as colonialism is something that’s imbedded in today — does offer the kind of learning environment that I think would be more inclusive of indigenous legal traditions, indigenous legal orders and indigenous students,” she says.
Many law schools in Ontario have started to implement the recommendations that were outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, which included pushing Canadian law schools to have mandatory classes on aboriginal law.
At the time of the commission’s call to action last summer, Lakehead University’s law school and the University of British Columbia’s Peter Allard School were the only two schools to have such mandatory classes, but more have followed suit since.
While Calder is supportive of having mandatory courses to tackle these issues, she says schools need to go further to foster a better learning environment for aboriginal students.
Some of Ontario’s law schools have seen small increases in the number of aboriginal students from year to year recently. Osgoode Hall Law School saw 12 aboriginal students enroll in 2015, compared to seven in each of the previous three years.
But most of the large law schools in Ontario have had very low numbers of students enrolled who self-identify as aboriginal. Western’s law school has had four total over the last five years, accounting for .4 per cent of the student population, and Queen’s has had seven, which was .7 per cent of the school’s enrolled students.
Windsor’s law school has had just 10 aboriginal students enroll over the last five years, making up .8 per cent of students who enrolled.
Christopher Waters, the dean of Windsor Law, said his own school is working to attract more aboriginal students by taking steps such as hiring two new aboriginal professors. The school has also started holding an indigenous law camp for faculty members on the Walpole Island First Nation.
"While we do have an indigenous student community at Windsor Law, it is unacceptably small,” Waters says. “Growing this population — and indeed indigenizing the law school generally — is a priority for us.”
Academics say tracking the number of aboriginal students admitted and enrolled is important as it helps law schools know how diverse their student body is and how they can attack any existing gaps.
“Having those statistics available can help us collectively to be doing more around recruitment or to be able to ask ourselves why is it we aren’t attracting a more diverse group of students to our law school,” says Calder.
EagleWoman said gathering this kind of information also allows schools to be more engaged with neighbouring aboriginal communities.
“This allows law schools to be responsive to the local and regional indigenous communities by providing numbers of students from their communities who are being welcomed into legal education," EagleWoman says.
As for Fiddler, he hopes to return to Sandy Lake once he passes the bar and wants to pursue legal work on First Nations issues, ideally in his hometown.
“It may be considered remote, but to me, the north is the centre of the universe,” he says. “It’s home.”