Q&A with Angelique EagleWoman, first aboriginal woman to head Canadian law school

Angelique EagleWoman was only eight years old when an act of injustice in her family propelled her to study law.

EagleWoman, who currently teaches at the University of Idaho, has been appointed the new dean of the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont.

“My aunt had married an African-American man and when he tried to pay a speeding ticket in Kansas, he was beaten so badly, he had to be taken to the hospital,” EagleWoman told Yahoo Canada News.

“But then, my aunt and uncle won $75,000 in a civil lawsuit against that county sheriff’s office and I thought: this is justice.”

She then stormed her way through the legal profession, getting an LL.M. (master of laws) in American Indian and Indigenous Studies with honours in 2004 from the University of Tulsa College of Law, serving as associate attorney with Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry LLP in Washington, D.C., and as tribal public defender for the Kaw Nation and the Ponca Tribe, both of Oklahoma.

“Being a role model is something I embrace,” she says. “I was the first in my family to get a college education, the first to get a law degree. It’s a core opportunity — to encourage others to follow this path, to see that someone from the same background with serious intent can accomplish these things.”

EagleWoman joined the University of Idaho College of Law in 2008 and in 2010, she was recognized as a Distinguished Alumni Scholar by Stanford University.

“I also tell people that I was a single parent the whole time I was studying law,” she emphasizes. “The majority of native women are single parents. So I want them to think that they can follow their passions. They should think that this is normal.”

She is a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate of the Lake Traverse Reservation located in South Dakota and also serves as their legal counsel. EagleWoman takes up her post in May in Thunder Bay, bringing her family with her.

Q: What attracted you to Lakehead University?

I received an invitation to apply, so I began researching the university and law school. I saw on the university’s front page that it was celebrating its 50th anniversary and its First Nations initiatives figured prominently. I saw the values the law school and university embraced and the kind of research they were doing which would enrich the learning of the students.

I want to be the kind of professor that nurtures and supports students and send them out into the world to make a difference. The law school incredibly matched my experience and it also required multiple courses in indigenous law and history for its first- and second-year law students — this is a first for any university — and I thought, ‘This is a dream come true.”

Sometimes your destiny comes and finds you.

There’s a new dawn in Canada and there are lots of people stepping forward and greeting that sunrise. We’re all hoping this will reinvigorate all of society in every part of Canada.

Q: Do you think aboriginal people are having their “moment” now — especially considering in Canada we have two ministers in the federal cabinet (Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and Fisheries and Oceans Minister Hunter Tootoo) in addition to artists/actors and musicians, such as Christi Belcourt, Rebecca Belmore, Duane Howard (The Revenant), Tanya Tagaq, A Tribe Called Red and writers, such as Wab Kinew and Joseph Boyden?

Yes, something is happening for First Nations right now. It’s the tipping point. Aboriginal people are going to be taking leadership positions and taking Canada forward in a very public way. I always say indigenous people are the permanent neighbours of Canadians and indigenous people were waiting for that opportunity to step up.

I told my husband a few years ago, there will be an indigenous law degree and it’s going to happen in every province. It’s happening.

You know Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? The first level is basic survival and then you keep moving up to and then attain the highest level of creativity [i.e. self-actualization]. We have been refugees in our homeland, which has impoverished us and now we are building and rebuilding. We are reaching that pinnacle of creative achievement.

This is also happening in the U.S. where our people, who are getting older, are better able to tell their stories and deal with their trauma and the natural reaction from others is compassion. This has allowed aboriginal people to step up.

Q: So then, is that why the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Canada was so crucial?

The TRC is about compassion in real terms. It’s so much more progressive than in the U.S. I’ve seen some leaders call for the same thing here. Our situation concerning abuse in residential schools is very buried. This also makes Canada very attractive to me in that it took on a very difficult history and transformed it.

The faculty at Lakehead also addressed a response to the TRC — specifically to No. 28 of the commission’s 94 recommendations requesting aboriginal law and history be taught in universities. And they’re doing it at Lakehead so their students will be familiar with aboriginal principles and Canada’s relationship to First Nations. When these lawyers go out into the world they will be innovators and will be faced with issues and have solutions.

Q: What are your thoughts on the federal inquiry into the missing and murdered indigenous women?

It’s commendable and necessary that it happen and that concrete steps result in ensuring indigenous women are safe in their home communities and when they travel to other places. Every segment of Canadian society has to start caring about and valuing indigenous women and girls to the point where, if you see a woman and girl walking alone, make sure she gets to safety. I would like to see that on a national level.

This is a global issue. You hear [Nobel Prize winner] Malala talk about girls in Afghanistan or girls in Africa and indigenous girls in the U.S. and Latin America and I see Canada being a leader by seeing the truth of the situation and launching an inquiry. Women are the future of society — they must be protected and respected.

Q: What are the foremost pressing legal issues now concerning aboriginal people?

There are so many such as collaboration on natural resource development, land claims, enforcement of treaty rights and just compensation to support indigenous governance.

Over the last seven years, I’ve been engaged with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. I was excited the new prime minister declared this would be the banner for new relations between Canada and indigenous people.

Our graduates are going to be familiar with it and will be able to help locally and globally. There is now a common focus on the world’s indigenous people and it’s gaining momentum within legal communities in the world. What makes Canada special is the TRC has paved the way to make the declaration a reality.

Essentially, the declaration has guidelines on how countries should have basic collective human rights for indigenous people. i.e., practical steps to those human rights.

That’s why we need so many lawyers to help and prepare for these issues.

This interview has been condensed and edited.