Canoe Lake Cree Nation member Delia Opekokew awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree
Reposted from the September 26, 2019 CBC News article with the permission of Kelly Provost
An Indigenous lawyer originally from northern Saskatchewan has been recognized by the Law Society of Ontario for her advocacy work in “furthering the cause of justice for Indigenous People and human rights for Canadians.”
Delia Opekokew, a member of Saskatchewan’s Canoe Lake Cree Nation, was awarded an honorary degree of doctor of laws, honoris causa (LLD), in the law society’s call to the bar ceremony Wednesday in Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall.
Opekokew said she was “very surprised” and “quite proud” when she first received the news.
She said it made her reflect on how her parents paved the way for her to succeed in her education, particularly by preparing her for residential school before she turned seven.
“I recall my mother saying to me, ‘We want you to have an education. It’s very important. And that is why you need to go to school,'” she said.
In preparation for attending the Beauval Indian Residential School, Opekokew said her parents arranged for her aunt to home-school her by teaching her to read and write in English, because she only knew Cree at that age.
“So I was a step ahead before I entered the school,” she said. “And so the level of education that they had is one thing that survived in me throughout my life and their influence was great and powerful.”
She said her parents made sacrifices to make sure Opekokew continued with her education, particularly when her mother fell ill with tuberculosis.
“There was pressure on her to pull me out of school at one point because I was a teenager and she could have done that so that I could look after the [other] children,” she said.
“But she and my father decided that they wouldn’t do that because they thought my education was important.”
Opekokew became the first Indigenous woman to be called to the bars of Ontario and Saskatchewan, as well as the first woman to run for the leadership of the Assembly of First Nations.
She said she didn’t plan on becoming a lawyer until she saw an advertisement in the University of Winnipeg’s anthropology department inviting Indigenous students to the pre-law program at the University of Saskatchewan’s Native Law Centre.
Opekokew said she convinced her friend Marion Ironquill Meadmore to join her in pursuing a career in law.
She said because of Meadmore’s influence, she studied very hard and was determined not to fail.
“When you go into law school, it’s almost like you join a cult because you train so much to work hard,” she said. “And I already was a hard worker, but the law school increased my desire to work hard and I’ve always worked hard to support my life.”
Meadmore became the first Indigenous woman to be called to the bar in Canada, while Opekokew was the second.
What followed for Opekokew was a distinguished career of Indigenous advocacy work.
The law society said Opekokew is widely recognized by her peers as a “passionate advocate and trailblazer.”
She pressed for the recognition of residential school survivors early in her legal career. Later in life, from 2008 to 2017, she would serve as a deputy chief adjudicator on the Independent Assessment Process under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.
She was one of three commissioners appointed to inquire into the Saskatchewan shooting death of Leo Lachance by self-proclaimed white supremacist Carney Nerland.
Opekokew also initiated legal action in Ontario for the family and estate of Anthony O’Brien (Dudley) George, the Indigenous activist shot and killed by police at Ipperwash Provincial Park in 1995.
The resulting public inquiry led to many reforms, including the creation of Ontario’s first-ever Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs, as well as changes in policing approaches to First Nations settings.
Opekokew said her enduring memory of that case is her admiration for the perseverance of George’s family — particularly his brother, Sam — to find out how and why the activist died.
“There were a lot of stories going around and other lawyers would not take the case,” she said. “And I finally ended up taking the case because they were so desperate because they were going to lose their limitation period if no lawyer took the case.”
She said she also remembers the toll the case took on the family and the other lawyers on their team.
“We all suffered,” she said. “The family and the lawyers suffered financially and emotionally and physically, in terms of carrying the case. So I do remember the struggle and also the pursuit of justice.”
Between 1998 and 2004, Opekokew litigated a case that led to a major financial settlement for First Nations war veterans who had been neglected after their return to Canada from serving abroad.
Previous honours she has received include a National Aboriginal Achievement Award in 2009, the Law Society of Ontario Medal in 2013 and the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations’ Saskatchewan First Nations Women’s Commission’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016.
Opekokew has practised as a sole practitioner since 1990, specializing in Indigenous treaty rights and law.