Lakehead University has won provincial approval to launch the law school it has long coveted, promising to gear its newest faculty to attract aboriginal students and focus on aboriginal law.
It is Ontario's first new law school since 1969, and one of several recent efforts across Canada to craft programs and curricula around local cultural needs, from plans for an indigenous law degree at the University of Victoria to Cape Breton University's newly minted chair in aboriginal business studies.
It is also Northern Ontario's first law school, chosen to fill a regional need as well as a cultural gap. For years, Lakehead has argued the need to train local students close to home to maintain a strong pool of legal talent, drive economic expansion and serve aboriginal students, who already make up nearly 14 per cent of its student body.
A first class of 55 law students will enroll in September, 2013, with priority going to Northern and aboriginal applicants. They will be able to take courses on aboriginal law, which can range from indigenous legal principles to treaty or land-claim law. They can also study a variety of legal issues common to rural and remote areas, and natural-resource laws relevant to the mining exploration efforts under way in the region's "Ring of Fire."
"We need better access to justice in the North," Lakehead president Brian Stevenson said. "There was a very strong push on the university from the aboriginal community, as well as from the legal community."
Currently, the region's nearest options for legal education are to drive about 14 hours to Toronto or nine hours to Winnipeg. Northern firms have struggled to attract law graduates from southern schools and to lure back homegrown students who go south to study. That has left articling positions unfilled and spurred concern over who will replace retiring lawyers.
Dr. Stevenson is confident many graduates will stay and practise law in the North, trading on the specialized knowledge they gain, and cites the statistic that 60 per cent of Lakehead medical-school grads take a job nearby.
Terry Waboose agrees. The Deputy Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation thinks the region is "definitely under-serviced in terms of the legal profession - and it's even more pronounced in first nations communities."
A study of 2006 data by York University's Michael Ornstein showed only 1 per cent of Ontario lawyers were aboriginal, though that number had nearly doubled since 2001.
By giving Lakehead the green light, Ontario ends the moratorium on new law schools it imposed in 2008 after being flooded with proposals. The province has promised a more controlled strategy for the way schools grow, but felt Lakehead is addressing a clear need.
"I kind of felt sorry for Lakehead when the moratorium came out," said John Milloy, Ontario's Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities. "It was, by all accounts, the most well-developed proposal … but it just ran into interest coming from so many quarters that we needed that breathing space to sort some of this out."
The province has promised $1.5-million to help Lakehead refurbish a historic local high school it took over in 2008, which will house the new law school. Lakehead also expects to receive an estimated $800,000 a year in new operating funds.
The University of Victoria, already a leader in indigenous legal education, hopes to offer a Bachelor of Indigenous Laws before long. UVic's mantra is that all lawyers, aboriginal or not, must understand aboriginal legal issues better.
"It would probably be hard for a lawyer to work in British Columbia without touching first nations issues," said John Borrows, who spent a decade as UVic's chair in Aboriginal Justice and Governance. "It's a way of thinking more generally about law, to see how the common law, civil law and indigenous legal traditions interact."
That approach is becoming more widespread, said Larry Chartrand, an associate professor who teaches an indigenous law course at the University of Ottawa. Most of his students are not aboriginal, partly because "there's not a lot of aboriginal students who get into law school."
Cape Breton University's history of consulting with local aboriginal leaders on their pressing needs led the school to create a first-of-its-kind research chair in Aboriginal Business Studies last year. CBU has more aboriginal students than any university in Atlantic Canada, but few study business.
"Our goal is to double the numbers, then double the numbers, then double the numbers," said Kevin Brown, the inaugural chair. "This is the beginning of it, but it's not going to happen overnight."