Kelly Russ still recalls meeting Judge Alfred Scow, B.C.’s first Indigenous judge, in Prince Rupert when he was attending elementary school with Scow’s children.
Scow, who died in 2013, was the first Indigenous person to graduate from law school in B.C. and the first Indigenous lawyer to be called to the B.C. bar.
Meeting the man in person gave Russ — who was born in Haida Gwaii — a sense of what was possible.
Russ would go on to spend 13 years in foster care before getting a law degree and starting his own family law firm in West Vancouver.
Russ, 58, is now one of four Indigenous candidates vying for spots among the benchers who oversee the law profession in B.C. — a number the Law Society of British Columbia (LSBC) says is remarkable in and of itself.
Elected benchers act collectively as directors of the LSBC and regulators of the profession, as well as individually as adjudicators, to “promote and protect” public interest, the society notes.
According to LSBC figures, about 2.73 per cent of the organization’s nearly 14,000 members — 359 lawyers —identified as Indigenous in 2020. Yet, only two Indigenous benchers have been elected in the past 137 years, the Aboriginal Lawyers Forum of the Canadian Bar Association’s B.C. branch says.
Russ and fellow lawyers Katrina Harry, Brian Dybwad and Lindsay LeBlanc are each campaigning for one of 19 spots and highlighting the need for greater Indigenous representation. In their own way, Russ says, they’re hoping to provide the same kind of inspiration Scow did for him decades ago.
“I think, as Indigenous people, we’re finally getting our feet on the ground within the legal profession, trying to find our way within the profession, especially within the regulatory body that is the Law Society of British Columbia,” Russ said.
“Yes, we’re perhaps a little late coming to the game. But we’re coming, and we’d like to participate.”
A historic election
Campaigns to lead B.C.’s legal profession rarely make headlines, but both the law society and the Aboriginal Lawyers Forum have pointed to the historic nature of the current contest.
Voting in this current election began Nov. 1 and ends on Nov. 15. A total of 34 candidates are running for the 19 available spots.
In addition to the benchers elected by lawyers around the province, the government also appoints up to six members to represent the public interest. LSBC communications director Jason Kuzminski says some level of Indigenous representation has thus been ensured by the public appointments since the 1990s.
Still, “the number of Indigenous candidates putting their names forward to run to become a member of the governing board of benchers is encouraging,” Kuzminski wrote in an email.
“It is consistent with the efforts the Law Society has been making to be more inclusive of Indigenous peoples.”
First Indigenous female bencher elected in 2018
In 2018, Karen Snowshoe was the first Indigenous woman elected as a bencher.
According to LSBC documents, it was Snowshoe’s powerful dissent in a disciplinary hearing last spring that “raised serious questions about the ability of the Law Society’s regulatory process to engage, address and accommodate marginalized complainants and witnesses, particularly Indigenous persons.”
She wrote a scathing criticism of a penalty for a lawyer who hired a paroled murderer to help him with files of residential school survivors who later claimed the freed killer tried to extort their settlement money.
Snowshoe was overruled by the other two members of the three-person panel; she called the one-month suspension and $4,000 fine they agreed on “grossly inadequate” and predicted the decision “would most likely call into question the public’s confidence.”
In response to her recommendations, the society struck a task force to review its regulatory processes.
In an interview with CBC, Snowshoe, who stressed that she was speaking for herself, not the law society, said the decision was “huge.”
“I think it was shocking to the average lawyer who saw this case. It was shocking to the average member of the public who thought: ‘How could this happen? How could the law society allow this to happen?'” Snowshoe said.
“Ultimately, if we don’t have public confidence in our ability to self-regulate and we can’t protect the most vulnerable and marginalized members of our public, then really our ability to self-regulate will be called into question.”
Snowshoe said that beyond a “significant” time commitment, being the only Indigenous elected bencher was emotionally draining and that she encountered overt racism and micro-aggressions from some colleagues.
“I can deal with all of that, but it takes a little bit of toll in terms of those cuts along the way, not feeling welcomed by certain people who quite frankly are happy with the power structure as it is,” she said.
‘We’re not asking for the guilt vote’
In 2015, the LSBC’s benchers agreed to address issues identified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report.
They recently piloted a course focusing on “the history of Aboriginal-Crown relations, the history and legacy of residential schools and how legislation regarding Indigenous peoples created the issues that reconciliation seeks to address.”
Snowshoe said she’s supportive of the four candidates looking to carry on her work, because she feels it’s crucial that the public see Indigenous representation as part of the reconciliation process.
LeBlanc, who is Métis, serves as the chair of the Law Foundation of B.C.
The Victoria lawyer says the fact only two Indigenous lawyers have been elected as benchers in more than a century is striking in a province where Indigenous people are over-represented in the criminal and child welfare legal systems, and where the rights of Indigenous people are at the heart of many pressing legal battles.
WATCH | What reconciliation means to this B.C. First Nation:
“I think it’s shocking,” LeBlanc said. “It is not representative of the number of Indigenous lawyers that are within the profession and it is a continuation of the under-representation.”
Like the other three candidates, LeBlanc stresses that she is running as a competent lawyer with something to offer the profession as a bencher who happens to be Indigenous.
“We’re not asking for the guilt vote. We’re asking for the competency vote,” he said.
“It’s an opportunity for the lawyers of B.C. to say, ‘You know what? Yeah they’re competent, and we’re prepared to step forward in this era of reconciliation and elect these individuals as benchers because we believe its an important social good to have four Indigenous lawyers who are competent at the benchers’ table.'”