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You belong here

A message to Indigenous people in the legal profession.

Koren Lightning-Earl
Koren Lightning-Earle, LLB, LLM Akemi Matsubuchi

When out at legal events or working in the legal community, I often get asked (or the question is often implied) if I belong there.

The last time was at a Canadian Bar Association reception, ironically, following a seminar where I was one of the keynote speakers on the topic of cultural awareness. I was literally asked upon my arrival, “Excuse me, do you belong here?” I often get treated differently than my non-Indigenous colleagues and it is noticeable. Sometimes they will talk directly to my colleagues and dismiss me as if I am not there.  Sometimes they forget to introduce me or give me credit for my work. Sometimes they mispronounce my name even after they hear someone say it properly. Often, they assume that I am an assistant or a contractor, not a real live lawyer. Once, I showed up for a new job and one of the lawyers asked if I was the new research assistant. I replied that I was the new lawyer, to which they replied, “oh—good for you!” 

From the beginning of my legal career, I have always struggled to prove that I belong. The day I was accepted to law school, I was also accused of shoplifting at a Suzy Shier in the West Edmonton Mall. The security guard told me there was no way I could afford the items I was taking off the racks. In those early days, I didn’t have the tools I have today, but I did speak up and told them where to go and that I would never set foot in that store ever again. And I haven’t. 

Every day I wake up prepared to prove that I belong in this space that, for years, was not occupied by Indigenous people.  Sometimes that means I must address this issue head on, and I am labeled aggressive. During an articling interview at a firm that I thought would be a good fit, given its sizable Aboriginal law practice, I said that dinner with my family is an important priority. This labeled me as not belonging in the profession.

In my first year of law school, I attended a mentoring event where you previously fill out an application form in hopes of being matched with someone in a field you are interested in. I ticked the box beside Aboriginal law, because at the time it was only an emerging practice area. I bought a suit for the event and my sister did my hair. When I attended the mentoring session, the mentor I was matched with worked in the City of Edmonton Bylaw department. He was not an Aboriginal rights defender, although he was apologetic and kind. To me, it demonstrated early on that I did not belong there. And that I hated suits.

In my second year of law school I became a student representative for the Indigenous Bar Association (IBA).  It is a national organization for Indigenous lawyers, judges, academics, and students. The connections and strength I drew from the IBA led me to know I did belong there. It empowered me to smash ideologies, negative talk, and swing open the doors to occupy and create space for Indigenous lawyers. So when I was asked that day at the CBA reception if I belonged, I immediately replied, “yes I do, my name is Koren Lightning-Earle and I was your keynote today.” Then I walked away and enjoyed the rest of my evening.

I also often get asked, “what barriers did you face in law school or in the practice of law?” The answer is simple: I was the barrier. It is often said that we cannot change people who don’t want to change.  So, I never saw anyone else as the barrier. I am also very proud of who I am and where I come from.  My last name speaks to who I am: Lightning-Earle. My Cree name is Blue Thunderbird women. So I changed my approach. If I was my own barrier, then I wanted to change that barrier into a barricade; to be a force of resonating change. To do this, I must be part of changing the systems we operate and work in. To create an opportunity for growth and make education available for those yearning to do more. To influence as many as I could to see me for me and embrace all that I am as Koren Lightning-Earle and treat me like a person, and as a lawyer.

I am often in spaces of opportunity for the education of non-Indigenous lawyers and staff, and sometimes I am the only Indigenous person in the room or on the call.  I often notice how they speak about Indigenous people, like the other or the “lesser than.”  The language and tone is different than if they were discussing non-Indigenous clients. I would not say these people were racist or discriminatory, but that some of them have some unconscious bias of which they are not aware.

It is like when I go to the grocery store and see the clerk having a wonderful conversation with the customer in front of me who happens to be a non-Indigenous person of her own background.  She is smiling, asking how her day was, making small talk and then the customer leaves. Then it is my turn, the clerk’s smile fades away and all she asks me is if I need bags. I don’t get the smile or the small talk. Some days I call them out, but other days it’s just been a long week and I chalk it up to the many other micro-aggressions experienced that week and I just pay for my groceries and go home. The clerk had a bias against me to treat me differently, not directly aggressive, but passively.  It may have been intentional, or it may have been unconscious.  I find when I challenge people in these situations, they often don’t realize what happened and when they reflect on the situation, they want to correct their actions going forward.  But I acknowledge there are people in our society and our profession that do not find fault in their actions.

There is a need to create space for anti-racism training in our workplaces. There is a need for education on unconscious bias and microaggressions. I am definitely not a unicorn—if I experience these things then others must as well. As lawyers, we are in an extreme place of privilege and held to a higher standard. We are not what the law refers to as the “reasonable person.” In fact, I probably never was or ever will be. I heard at the Indigenous Justice Summit Steven Pointe say that the reasonable man was a middle-aged white male.  Well, that might be my husband, but I argue he is not always reasonable.

When I meet Indigenous law students entering the field of law, I always tell them, “YOU BELONG HERE.”  Despite everything that is telling you otherwise, know that “YOU BELONG HERE”. Giants who came before you had to fight and are still fighting for this space for you to thrive.

So, I ask Alberta lawyers, how are you creating this space in your environment? Are you engaging Indigenous law students or young lawyers or just getting them to type up a list of all the powwows coming up that summer (that does happen). How are you ensuring that you’re creating real diversity as opposed to just check-the-box diversity? What training are you providing or supporting?  Do you think you have an inclusive workplace? I know there are many amazing inclusive lawyers and firms out there because I’ve met them and continue to watch them grow. I get the opportunity to work with many who lift me up and I try to do the same. I continue to have hope for the system. Help create that sense of belonging for the lawyers of the future, no matter what they may look like or where they may have come from.  In fact, honour who they are and where they come from.