Kanehsata'kehró:non lawyer leaps into new role in Kahnawake

Busy lawyers might be tempted to find a moment’s peace, but when Joëlle Perron-Thibodeau was working at Dionne Schulze, she was more focused on the Great Law of Peace – once even using her lunch hour to give a presentation on the Kaianere'kó:wa to colleagues at the law firm.

It’s not the only way the young lawyer worked to bring Kanien’kehá:ka culture to the office. She regularly contributed Kanien’kéha words and expressions to work discussions, an expression of her passion for advocating for Onkwehón:we, said Jameela Jeeroburkhan, a partner at the law firm.

“Joëlle is curious about all areas of law as they affect Indigenous people generally and the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation in particular,” said Jeeroburkhan.

It’s no wonder, then, that when Perron-Thibodeau saw a job posting for legal counsel at the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK), she knew she had to apply.

“My family is from Kanesatake, so I know it’s not for my community, but I feel I still fulfill this goal of helping the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation working at the MCK,” said Perron-Thibodeau. “It’s realizing the dream I had to work for the nation, and I’m happy to be working for the MCK because it’s an organization that is really forward in its position.”

Now, the learner of Kanien’kéha is surrounded by words in the language, with Mohawk even turning up on the bathroom door.

“I feel like I’m immersed in my own culture, and I’m really excited to be learning not only the legal issues of the community but also about the culture. I hear niá:wen, shé:kon, kwe kwe, ó:nen often here,” she said.

As legal counsel at the MCK, she will be working on a range of issues facing Kahnawake. On Monday – her first day – she was already reviewing environmental and commercial law files that she has some familiarity with from her time at Dionne Schulze.

“Law is a tool with which we can fight a lot of issues with the government, individuals, or companies,” she said, noting that law touches nearly every aspect of life, from health to education to something as mundane as road rules.

Although Perron-Thibodeau is only 26 years old, her interest in pursuing justice for Onkwehón:we goes back a long time, according to her mother, Josée Perron.

The pair would frequently visit Kanesatake, so Perron-Thibodeau was always anchored in her roots, Perron said. She remembers the way her daughter used to constantly ask about the issues facing Indigenous people and communities.

“She had a lot of questions, a lot of questions for me,” Perron said. “And she would always say that’s not fair, that’s not fair, they should change that. Then one day she said I’m going to be a judge and I’m going to change all that.”

From that time, Perron-Thibodeau did not waver in her intention to seek justice for her people through law, and with her maturity and temperament, she was able to thrive. Her mother describes her as a good listener.

“She feels for the people. She has a lot of empathy,” said Perron. “She’s a soft-spoken person and rational. She doesn’t get upset – I think one time I saw her upset. She’s very grounded.”

According to Jeeroburkhan, this temperament has helped Perron-Thibodeau thrive in her career so far.

“It is a real pleasure to work with Joëlle,” said Jeeroburkhan. “She is a hard worker, but she never loses her smile. She keeps everyone’s spirits up. She also remains gracious and calm under stress, which is a huge benefit in our line of work.”

Perron-Thibodeau is also an excellent communicator, Jeeroburkhan said. “She has a keen skill and interest for developing plain-language explanations of judicial decisions, legal agreements, and community laws,” she said, noting Perron-Thibodeau recently appeared on the radio to explain the Superior Court of Quebec’s White-Montour decision.

“I know it is with great pride that Joëlle accepted a position at MCK. To be able to contribute her legal skills to her nation lies at the heart of why she pursued law as a career in the first place,” said Jeeroburkhan.

Perron-Thibodeau hopes to see more and more Kanien’kehá:ka lawyers emerge, noting recent Mohawk graduates of McGill’s law faculty. As for herself, she finds she is learning more all the time and has so far found her career to be deeply rewarding.

“I know I’m not the same lawyer now that I was in 2021 when I was called to the bar,” said Perron-Thibodeau. “I feel I’m now ready to take this new role at the MCK for band council.”

gmbankuti@gmail.com

Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door