An arctic law school tailored to native needs

Afew years ago, Aaju Peter, an Inuit mother of five who lives in Canada's Arctic, would never have dreamed of entering the legal profession. Now, thanks to an innovative new program in the country's newest territory of Nunavut, she and 14 other future Inuit lawyers have completed their first semester at law school.

Many native people who go to the southern part of Canada to study end up dropping out because of culture shock and language difficulties. So the organizers of the new Akitsiraq Law School in Iqaluit, Nunavut, tried a different approach: They brought the school to the students, instead of the other way around.

Now, students have the option of staying close to home and learning about not only mainstream law, but also traditional Inuit law and the Inuit language, Inuktitut.

"We recognized that for most aboriginal applicants, it's not possible to go to law school; poverty, the demands of family, and living in the South mean there are too many distractions," says Don Galloway, a law professor at the University of Victoria and one of the Akitsiraq's directors. The unique program, which likely will be offered only once, has attracted inquiries from as far away as Australia.

Nunavut - meaning "our land" in Inuktitut - covers an area the size of Western Europe, but is home to only 27,000 people. After decades of negotiations between the Inuit and the federal government, the territory was created in April 1999, the largest native land-claim settlement in Canadian history. Since Inuit people represent about 85 percent of Nunavut's population, they control their own legislative assembly. Non-Inuit residents also participate in elections for the assembly and the territory's 26 municipal governments.

About 42 percent of the Nunavut population over the age of 15 have no schooling past Grade 9, and just 6 percent have a university degree. Yet public-service jobs are eventually required to be filled by Inuit in proportion to their population in Nunavut.

Currently, Nunavut is home to only one lawyer from the Inuit population - the territory's premier, Paul Okalik.

The law school has the financial backing of the federal and Nunavut governments and is a partnership between the University of Victoria law school in British Columbia (more than 2,200 miles away), the Nunavut Arctic College, and the Akitsiraq Law School Society.

Of the 15 students in the program, 13 are parents. To ensure they're able to support their families while they study, most receive government funding. In return, they will work for their sponsors during school breaks and for at least two years after they graduate. They must also agree to remain in the North for four years after graduation. The classes are taught by professors from various Canadian universities. Most of them fly into the community every week, while at least one professor stays in Iqaluit for the term.

Catherine Bell was the first faculty member in residence. A law professor from the University of Alberta, she describes the program as a "phenomenal success'' because it offers small classes and the students are highly motivated. Their performance was the best she's seen in 12 years of teaching.

Not that there weren't difficulties. In teaching property law, she had to include the fundamental principles of law while also making the concepts relevant to the Inuit students. Wherever possible, she included examples that related to the Nunavut land claim. She also wove in references to traditional law and drew on the knowledge of elders in the community.

First-semester classes included legal research and writing, property law, aboriginal law and land claims, Inuktitut language, and peer counseling. Graduates of the four-year program will be qualified to practice law anywhere in Canada.

Madeline Redfern, previously the executive director of Nunavut Tourism, says she enrolled in the law school because she believes her fellow Inuit aren't well served by mainstream institutions. She's particularly concerned about housing, education, and protection of language and culture. Ms. Redfern hopes to pursue constitutional and property law.

Ms. Peter, who is from Greenland but has resided in Canada for the past 20 years, would like to pursue international law. She's especially interested in laws that govern the borders between Canada and her native country. But Peter is also excited to be learning about traditional Inuit law. "I'd like to be able to explain southern concepts of law to Inuit, like to unilingual elders who only know traditional Inuit law," says Peter, who speaks four languages.

"In order to change anything, we have to understand the Canadian laws. I could, without a degree and just being a mother of five, scream like crazy and get nowhere. This degree will help me get my point across," she says.

In a region where winters are nine months long and the average January temperature is minus 22 degrees F., life isn't easy. The area is also weighed down by alcoholism, an unemployment rate of about 21 percent, and a sense of powerlessness among many of its residents.

Mr. Okalik, the premier, says that by 2020, he wants his people to have the same living standards as others in Canada. This program is one step.

"If you want legal counsel on any given issue today, you won't likely get it in the territory, especially for Inuit clients who won't likely receive service in their language," he says. The next step would be to set up supports for aboriginal participation in other professions, such as nursing and teaching.

The aim is not to produce a legion of lawyers. "Nunavut doesn't need 100 lawyers. The future of this program is that it will likely be picked up and used as a model for other communities," says Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, the school's local director.

Still, the program's impact can be significant. Much of the traditional approach to justice has vanished, but the school honors Inuit history in its name. Akitsiraq was a sacred, secret place near Cape Dorset, marked by a circle of massive stones, where the Inuit Great Council met and exercised justice as recently as 1924. A brochure says the school was named "in remembrance of such places of power hidden within the Inuit landscape and culture." Soon, Inuit lawyers will use tools from both worlds to shape their future.

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