Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Law school proposed for Ontario's north and Aboriginal Law Students

Plans are underway for a new law school in Thunder Bay, the first in northern Ontario. It will be built at Lakehead University. Supporters of the plan believe establishing such a law school would make it easier for aboriginal students to pursue careers in law and encourage more lawyers to practise in northern communities, where legal services are often non-existent. I think this is a fantastic idea.

Apparently the university hasn't yet met with provincial education ministry officials to discuss accreditation requirements. If built, the institution would be Ontario's seventh law school and the first built since 1969. A 2004 report for Ontario law deans on the impact of tuition deregulation found the number of law students from the north had decreased between 1997 and 2002.

On the topic of Aboriginals law students...

There is a misconception held by many that Aboriginal students get a free ride in University, and subsequently in law school, and that they are somehow treated differently. There are rumours that Aboriginal applicants are guaranteed spots in law school if they apply, and that once accepted, they are graded differently. This is not true at all. I will try to shed some light on these preconceptions, while at the same time, providing information that will give Aboriginal applicants every advantage and opportunity to pursue a legal education.

The truth is that Aboriginal peoples are underrepresented in almost all areas of the Canadian economy. This underrepresentation is especially felt in law, an area where Aboriginal peoples require greater Aboriginal representation for all areas of law, including criminal, civil, and constitutional rights. More and more cases are coming forward and being heard in Canadian courts dealing with Aboriginal rights. Aboriginal peoples have unique rights entrenched in the Canadian constitution. As a result, there is a much higher need to have lawyers that are aware of, well versed in, and passionate about the rights of First Nations, Métis and Inuit. On the other hand, Aboriginal lawyers are needed to work for the Crown. Additionally, as more Aboriginal peoples are becoming involved in business ventures, there is a need for corporate and commercial lawyers who can be trusted and who have a good relationship with Aboriginal communities and individuals.

It is true that many law schools in Canada allot a certain percentage of spots available for Aboriginal and/or mature students. This percentage is often 10%. However, that does not mean that they always fill these spots or that the school is obligated to fill the spots with Aboriginal and/or mature students. The 10% number is a goal rather than a rule. As such, it is often the case that not all spots are filled by Aboriginal or mature students.

Some schools seem to attract a larger number of Aboriginal applicants. The College of Law at University of Saskatchewan and University of Victoria both have a relatively large contingency of Aboriginal law students. The University of Alberta does have an Indigenous Law Program, but the number of students was only 14 in 2004/2005 (out of a student body of about 500).
The process for applying to many law schools for Aboriginal students is a two-pronged approach. Aboriginal applicants have the option of attending a pre-law program at the University of Saskatchewan the summer before law school. Success at this program can lead to a conditional acceptance to some law schools. The program is aimed at preparing Aboriginal students for law school, in terms of study habits and curriculum. Attendees take property law. Successful students will get credit for this class, thus taking off some pressure during 1L. Acceptance is conditional on the student succeeding (in other words, passing) 1L. There are Aboriginal students who come out of the Saskatchewan program who do not succeed. However, the program supposedly does help many students to prepare and attempts to single out potential achievers amongst its attendees.

Aboriginal students can also be accepted unconditionally. This is often the case. This means that the Aboriginal applicant is rated alongside every other applicant. This happens before a conditional acceptance is considered.

Now, here is the truth of the matter. I believe that if you are an Aboriginal student, if you show sincere desire, and if you have a relatively decent GPA and LSAT score, then you stand a better chance than most applicants of obtaining acceptance to many law schools. Law schools that indicate that they encourage Aboriginal applications cannot say that they favour the idea of accepting an Aboriginal applicant. However, it is in their best interest to do so, as it looks very good for the law school when they can claim to have a decent contingency of Aboriginal students amongst their student body. However, remember this is the opinion of the author and that any reputable law school in Canada will never admit this idea. I just had to say it because I believe it to be true, and because I want to encourage any Aboriginal potential candidate to apply for law school because there really is a very high need for Aboriginal representation in law school and in the legal community.

For those of you who are not Aboriginal and who have read the above statements, please do not take a viewpoint that this is an unfair advantage given to Aboriginal students. The truth is that the number of applications from Aboriginal students is nowhere near what is needed to fill the 10% goal. It is also true that many Aboriginal people have faced extremely hard conditions in childhood and early adulthood, and that the odds are against them gaining access to university, let alone law school. I will leave the issue at that and hope that I do not create too much fuss.
If you are an Aboriginal applicant, I highly suggest that you do a lot of research on what each law school actually offers to its Aboriginal student body. Certain law schools claim to support their Aboriginal students in terms of counselling and study help. As much as you can, make sure that these claims are true. Also, do some research into what course offerings deal with Aboriginal legal issues. Most schools do not offer much in this way. However, in order to practice in this area, it is a very good idea to be as exposed to as much Aboriginal law as possible during your time in law school. The Kawaskhimon National Aboriginal Moot is an opportunity that is open to almost every law student across Canada and is a great opportunity to learn what it is like to research and practice Aboriginal law.

Mature students are defined as those who are 35 years or older. As with Aboriginal applicants, there may be a certain percentage of spots "held" for mature applicants. As well, special consideration may be given to real-life experience. For example, if you have some connection to law in any way, you should emphasize this in your application résumé and statement of interest. Again, mature students are considered alongside all other applicants first. If they are not successful in this round, they may be considered in a mature student round. You should be sure to contact your law schools of interest to find out particular mature student criteria and standards.

I think that if it is established, with proof that Northern sections of provinces are under-lawyered, and are short on Aboriginal law graduates, and if they think that a new law school within the proper vicinity will help, then go for it.

I look forward to your comments on the above items of interest.

1 comment:

Jamie said...

Thanks for the insightful and descriptive post. Although I am not aboriginal I have worked directly with a number of aboriginal people in Northern Canada and feel that they do need a stronger representation in the legal profession.

One comment though, the age and criteria for mature students varies for each law school so applicants would be wise to check each school's website or talk to the admissions officer at their law school of choice.