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Brad Regehr, the new president of the Canadian Bar Association, is seen here beside the Assiniboine River in Winnipeg on Sept. 5, 2020. He is the association's first Indigenous.

JOHN WOODS/The Globe and Mail

He was a child of the Sixties Scoop, one of the thousands of Indigenous children taken from their parents and communities and adopted into non-Indigenous families. Last week, he became the first Indigenous president of the Canadian Bar Association, the country’s largest lawyers’ organization.

“I always view myself as one of the lucky ones because the family was very loving,” says Brad Regehr, 52, who is a partner at a rare, national law firm with a majority of Indigenous owners – Maurice Law in Winnipeg – where he advises First Nations and corporate clients. “There are some absolutely horrible stories that you hear about.”

The legal profession has been slow to accept change, as exemplified by the CBA presidency itself. The organization dates from 1896, and a core mission is the promotion of equality in that profession and the justice system. Yet it was only last year it had its first president of colour, Vivene Salmon.

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Now the 36,000-member organization has chosen someone who embodies Canada’s difficult history with Indigenous peoples, and while Mr. Regehr has no doubts about the purpose of the Sixties Scoop – in effect to eliminate those peoples from the country, just like the residential schools – he has struggled to come to terms with his identity.

“There’s a lot of deep, complex feelings about that,” says Mr. Regehr, a father of three sons, whose spouse is also a lawyer. “I spent a lot of time, whether as a child or a teen or an adult, thinking about all the ‘what ifs.’ ... What’s my identity? Where do I come from? What have I missed out on? What have I gained?”

As CBA president, his priority is to continue the organization’s push behind certain of the “calls to action” from the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In particular, the bar association wishes to prod the profession’s self-governing bodies, as well as law schools, federal and provincial governments, and the corporate sector, to ensure training for lawyers, law students and civil servants, in Indigenous issues, including the history and legacy of residential schools, treaties and Indigenous rights, Indigenous law and Crown-Indigenous relations.

As for his views on charged issues such as whether candidates for the Supreme Court should have to be bilingual in English and French, which can have the effect of excluding Indigenous candidates, who did not always have exposure to French in schools on reserve, he hesitated, in an interview, saying that he hasn’t been briefed on the CBA policy. (The Trudeau government requires French-English bilingualism from Supreme Court candidates. It makes no allowance for a second, Indigenous language.)

But a moment later, Mr. Regehr threw caution aside.

“I have the highest regard for the judges on the Supreme Court. I have met them all," he said. "But only an Indigenous person is going to be able to bring that perspective. Unfortunately what the bilingualism requirement does is it leaves out a whole lot of people.”

(One of the people he admires most, Harry LaForme of Ontario, the only Indigenous person to be appointed to a court of appeal, told The Globe and Mail two years ago that he resented how that policy denied him a chance to apply for a spot on the top court in 2017.)

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Mr. Regehr, a member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation in northeast Saskatchewan, added that a “balance” will have to be found between the French-English bilingualism prerequisite and the need for an Indigenous perspective on Canada’s highest court.

“I’m probably going to get in trouble for saying all this,” he said. In fact, his view is in line with the CBA’s position, taken in 2010 and still unchanged, that a candidate’s inability to understand both official languages when appointed should not be a bar to joining the Supreme Court.

Senator Murray Sinclair of Manitoba, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, knows Mr. Regehr personally. “He’s got to be the calmest guy in the world,” he said in an interview. “He gets along with everybody but at the same time he has very strong views and is not afraid to express them – a very strong leader.”

One matter on which Mr. Regehr expressed himself passionately was on the state of race relations in Canada.

“You know, Canadians sometimes sit there and go, ‘Oh, look at all the problems they have in the United States.’ Let’s look at ourselves in the mirror here. We have big problems here in Canada. Let’s look at the number of Indigenous people who are in criminal justice, let’s look at the numbers of children in care.”

He was one of those children. He believes he was taken at birth from his biological mother, Yvonne Bear (later Yvonne Aldcraft), and that the authorities put pressure on her to give him up. (She was a single mother, as his biological father did not want a family.) As an adult, he found his biological mother and his extended birth family, including two younger half-brothers, with the help of documents provided by his adoptive mother.

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“She was a beautiful Cree woman from northeast Saskatchewan,” and she had come down to Winnipeg to upgrade her education. “I have some biological cousins who remember her living with them and remember her becoming pregnant and all of a sudden she was gone. They were excited there was going to be a baby but then there was no baby.”

He spent his first six months of life in multiple foster homes. There was heavy advertising at the time, promoting the idea that Indigenous children were in need of good homes. His adoptive parents, Rudy and Anne Regehr, Mennonites originally from Alberta, stepped forward, and also adopted an Indigenous girl; in all, they had four children.

His adoptive mother is the last of both sets of parents alive. He is close to both of his extended families, he says.

“I like to say I don’t have a family tree, I have a family bush.”

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