This month’s spotlight is on CLEBC contributor Kris Statnyk, presenter and course material author for CLEBC’s Aboriginal Law Conference and contributor to CLEBC’s Truth and Reconciliation Task Force. Kris is Gwich’in and a citizen of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Old Crow, Yukon.
How and why did you get involved with CLEBC?
I initially became involved with CLEBC as an articling student when I co-authored a discussion paper for CLEBC’s 2014 Aboriginal Law Conference.
What are you currently working on (or have most recently worked on) with CLEBC?
I most recently provided input and guidance to CLEBC’s Truth and Reconciliation Task Force on the development of CLEBC’s Truth and Reconciliation Action Plan. The Action Plan sets out CLEBC’s embrace and response of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #27 as it relates to legal education and training necessary to redress the legacy of Indian Residential Schools and advance the process of reconciliation.
What inspired you to practice Indigenous law and Aboriginal law?
When I was completing my undergraduate degree and studying topics related to Indigenous peoples, I found there was often a law and policy dimension that I did not understand beyond the impression that Canadian law had profound implications on our livelihoods and well-being as Indigenous peoples. I was driven to better understand how Aboriginal law enabled and/or impeded the realization of our self-determination. It was once I studied Aboriginal law that I came to understand the revitalization of our own Indigenous legal traditions as a fundamental part of fulfilling our aspirations of self-determination. I try to bring this general understanding to the work I do now on behalf of my clients.
What are some of the rewards and challenges that you experience in your practice?
It is always an honour and privilege to represent my clients and to assist them with finding solutions for challenges facing their communities. The most rewarding aspect of my practice is the opportunity to better understand the diverse Indigenous cultures of my various clients and their unique relationships to their territories. I also find the breadth of issues that I get to work on rewarding. I find that the most challenging aspects of my practice relate to the increasing inaccessibility of access to justice for Indigenous peoples, the limitations of Canadian law to affect beneficial transformative change that is experienced by Indigenous peoples at the grassroots level, and the overall lack of meaningful and respectful engagement with Indigenous legal traditions.
Tell us more about your involvement with West Coast Environmental Law and The Law Centre. How were your experiences there?
I took a non-traditional approach to work experiences during law school where I did not seek out summer student positions doing legal work with large firms. Instead, I sought practical experience working with low income clients at the student-run Law Centre at University of Victoria, where I got excellent mentorship and also an opportunity to assist vulnerable members of our society who do not qualify for legal aid in their circumstances. My time as a student at the Law Centre impressed upon me the importance of empathy in the practice of law. I also enjoyed a summer internship as a student with West Coast Environmental Law where I worked with my colleagues to assist the Yinka Dene Alliance in asserting their laws and jurisdiction in relation to the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline (as it then was). This volunteer experience provided me with great insight and learning on how to effectively work with Indigenous communities to bring forward their own legal traditions into regulatory processes and the public discourse.
What has your experience been like in the legal profession as a lawyer who is Indigenous?
It is difficult to for me to summarize my experience of being an Indigenous person in the legal profession. I have the good fortune of having spent my entire career at Mandell Pinder LLP surrounded by great colleagues and an environment where my perspectives are sought and embraced. At the same time, there are aspects inherent to the practice of law that I continue to struggle with as an Indigenous person. Specifically, I struggle with the fact that the foundations of Aboriginal law are premised upon, and continue to perpetuate, falsehoods that pre-existing political and legal traditions of Indigenous peoples are non-existent or inferior. It is hard to see yourself, or want to see yourself, as a participant in the maintenance of such a system or contributing to your own oppression. It is something I continue to reckon with personally. Another struggle that has existed throughout my experience in the legal profession is the simple physical alienation from my own land, language, and Gwich’in culture in order to maintain the full-time practice of law.
How do you think the BC legal community can meaningfully participate in addressing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action?
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that “[a] commitment to truth and reconciliation demands that Canada’s legal system be transformed.” There is a lot of work the entire legal community needs to do. The most basic way the legal community can meaningfully participate is by first seeking to address the overall ignorance of Indigenous perspectives, which is a legacy of poor education at all levels in Canadian society. I believe the CLEBC Action Plan provides a platform to partly address these gaps in legal education, but it is a lifetime of humility and learning that individuals must embrace. I also firmly believe it is of equal, if not greater, importance what the legal community does after becoming more informed. In its final report, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made it clear that the Canadian legal system is viewed by Indigenous peoples as “diametrically opposed to their interests”, “fraught with danger”, and “a significant obstacle to reconciliation”. This should be deeply troubling to the entire legal community. As a participant in this legal system, I believe it’s necessary to view and respond to this as a crisis of legal ethics and not just one of competency. It is not only law that can be unjust, but our way of practising law can be too.
Other than law, what are you passionate about?
I am passionate about learning more of my Gwich’in history and culture.