From the window of her new office in the Staats Law building, Brenna Staats can see the Mohawk Institute, a former residential school on the land of the Six Nations of the Grand River in southwestern Ontario.
The school was still in operation when her grandfather, Howard, became the fifth aboriginal lawyer called to the bar in the history of Ontario, in 1966. His welcome into the legal community came only 15 years after the Indian Act was amended, allowing indigenous communities the right to hire legal counsel. It also came a mere six years after aboriginals were granted the right to vote.
Howard's son, Mark, joined the firm four decades later, officially making Staats Law in Brantford, Ont., a family business. When Mark's niece, Brenna, 25, was called to the bar in Ontario on Monday, the Staats once again made history as the first indigenous family in the province with three generations practising law.
"They've done nothing but make me proud of them," Howard said of his son and niece as he sat in his office, which is full of hefty files, indigenous art and family photos. Clad in a tailored navy blue suit, the 76-year-old spoke with the precision of a man who has had a career steeped in measured argumentation.
As a fresh law school graduate, Howard first worked in Toronto with G. Arthur Martin, a legendary criminal defence lawyer whose propensity for winning cases left a lasting impression. "I was just absolutely fortunate to be able to article with him," he said.
Howard then returned to the Six Nations to practise criminal law after noticing the large number of people on the reserve without legal representation, and set his sights on becoming one of the best criminal defenders in the county.
"I've never had a feeling of discrimination from clients, other lawyers and certainly never from the courts," he said.
Flanked by forest, the firm sits in the small pocket of Brantford that falls within the borders of the reserve. The Staats name is well known in both communities.
As the second generation, Mark, 39, has a full caseload. But despite his Upper Mohawk heritage and passion for balancing out the inequities often faced by aboriginal offenders in the courts, he doesn't feel a pull toward aboriginal law itself.
"I view myself as a lawyer who happens to be indigenous, not an indigenous lawyer," he said.
And yet he often turns his mind to Brantford's Indigenous Persons Court (IPC), originally conceived as a way to take a more informal and personal approach to cases involving aboriginal offenders using restorative justice.
"Aboriginal people who have been charged [feel] that they've been ground through the system," Mark said.
Similar to the Gladue court in Toronto – named for a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision that found courts must consider an aboriginal offender's background in sentencing – the IPC is a legal venue for an offender, family, lawyers and judge to discuss the life events that led to the commission of a crime.
While the nascent field of aboriginal law may have carved out a much larger role in Canada following a series of high-profile Supreme Court cases, Howard feels more comfortable directing his legal acumen toward criminal and family law. Even Brenna, the recent graduate for whom the rapidly changing legal landscape is a norm, isn't tempted to join the emerging discipline. Instead, her interests lie in continuing the family trade.
"With family law and criminal law, you've got people dealing with some of the worst situations they may ever experience in their entire lives," Brenna said. "And to be able to help them in any small way ... I like to think that's part of it."
Fifty years have passed since Howard was called to the bar, and his granddaughter's years at law school underscore their vastly differing experiences. Her education came at a time when the University of Toronto has an elder-in-residence who performs smudging ceremonies at events hosted by the Aboriginal Law Students' Association. Howard recalls only a single other indigenous student in his undergraduate degree program, and he was the only one in law school.
In spite of university outreach, aboriginal people are consistently underrepresented among lawyers and law students in Ontario. As of 2014, the Law Society of Upper Canada identified 457 aboriginal lawyers in Ontario compared with 24,816 white lawyers.
Over a 16-year period at Osgoode Hall Law School, which Howard attended, there have been marginal changes to aboriginal student attendance. Over the last five years at the University of Toronto, which both Mark and Brenna attended, it's been a similar story.
While the Staats family ignored the statistics, Howard, Mark and Brenna can't recall a single pivotal moment that drew them into law.
"When you're little and someone asks you what you want to be when you grow up, you usually say whatever you know," Brenna said. "So I said either a ballerina or a lawyer. And ballet didn't work out."