Overseeing 140,000 lawyers – through a Northern lens

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As the leader of a body that oversees nearly 140,000 lawyers in 14 jurisdictions across the country, newly elected president of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada Sheila MacPherson has had a busy few months.

“Somedays … I feel like I live on an airplane,” she said.

The newly elected leader of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, Sheila MacPherson, oversees 14 law societies across Canada. Living and practicing law in Yellowknife, she says she’s able to draw from her extensive legal experience in the North to address the needs of all jurisdictions – big or small. photo courtesy of Sheila MacPherson

But when MacPherson lands – it’s Yellowknife she calls home.

While the longtime lawyer, constitutional litigator, and current NWT Legislative Assembly law clerk was elected on Nov.15, 2017 to head the federation – a national organization that promotes and develops uniform standards and practices for its 14 law society members.

In a few short months as president, MacPherson said she’s already bringing Yellowknife – and her experiences in the North – to her new role as president.

“A Northern perspective is important because we regulate lawyers and when we are making policy, when we’re coming up with recommendations … we need to make sure we’re taking into consideration the challenges faced by all of the law societies including the very smallest jurisdictions,” said MacPherson.

From Ontario’s 40,000 lawyers to the 100 resident lawyers in NWT, she said, the makeup, needs and challenges of each jurisdiction vary widely.

By living and working in the North, MacPherson said she understands the needs of small jurisdictions – especially ones like NWT.

“That allows (me) to bring something to the table, a bit of insight into different challenges, because (I’m) in the North serving a predominantly Indigenous clientele,” said MacPherson.

While MacPherson’s storied legal career brought her to practice in Yellowknife, MacPherson’s Northern lens was shaped much farther North.

Born in Nova Scotia in the 1960s, MacPherson moved to Inuvik – where her father taught – when she was just 11 months old. She then settled in Iqaluit, or Frobisher Bay as it was then known. It was there, attending elementary and high school, that MacPherson’s love for law began to bloom.

“There wasn’t a particular moment, but more an evolution,” she said. “Part of that evolution was watching lawyers like Dennis Patterson and watching the good work he had done in Frobisher Bay at the legal aid clinic there.”

Patterson – now a Canadian senator – took MacPherson under his wing.

“(He) ended up being quite a mentor to and making me believe that even as a Northern kid from a small community, there’s absolutely no reason why I couldn’t go on to law school” said MacPherson.

And go the Northern kid did.

MacPherson attended law school at Dalhousie University, but home was never far from her mind, and when the North beckoned, and she answered, returning after she graduated. But with few lawyers and the inability to article in the small community of Frobisher Bay, MacPherson instead relocated in Yellowknife, thinking she’d return home eventually.

“But you make a life and I made a life here in Yellowknife,” she said.

Her previous life, however, was never forgotten. If Yellowknife was her home, Nunavut was her heart.

“I still have strong emotional connections to Nunavut. I am never more comfortable in my feet and the way my soul sits then when I’m over there.”

A connection no doubt strengthened by the work MacPherson did in Nunavut during the 1990s.

Leading up to the creation of Nunavut in 1999 MacPherson worked as the NWT Legislative Assembly law clerk, dealing with legal issues arising from the division of the territory. MacPherson made contributions to the establishment of new courts in Nunavut, an undertaking she was “privileged to be a part of.”

While MacPherson gained intellectual satisfaction in a political environment, nothing compared to the sense of fulfillment she received from being in the courtroom, representing parents and children alike in child protection cases in Nunavut and throughout NWT.

“You want to fix their family, you wish you could, but you can’t,” MacPherson said. “It’s gritty, it’s difficult, but it is tremendously satisfying emotionally if you’re able to … help shape a process that will provide some structure and reunification of parents and the children.”

Now, three months into her position as president of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, MacPherson said she’s applying her experiences in the North to make real-world contributions in the field of law.

As president, MacPherson cited the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada calls to action – including ensuring lawyers are “culturally competent” through education on the experiences of Indigenous people, including inter-generational trauma and forced relocation – is a personal priority.

“These are significant calls to action across the country, but they’re really significant in the North because of the significance of our Indigenous population,” said MacPherson.

But now, following the acquittal of Gerald Stanley in the shooting death of Colten Boushie, calls to action – on justice reform – are coming from the public, too.

While MacPherson maintains the Canadian justice system’s strong structures and consistent application of law make it the envy of other countries, she said there’s still room for improvement – and reform.

“It’s not broken, but it sure needs work,” she said.

“We all have a part to play in ensuring the justice system operates in a way that is fair to all people, and part of reform is likely going to include looking at how jurors are selected.”

A step towards reflecting Indigenous experiences within the justice system, MacPherson said, means having more representation in the courtroom through Indigenous judges and lawyers.

“It’d be a remarkable thing if we were in Nunavut and the entire court party was able to conduct trials in their first language. That would be an amazing thing to see – and it will happen.”

“We see more calls for transparency about decision making, the importance of check your bias at the door. I think we’re definitely in a period where we’re answering for answers about how to make our justice system better.”

This November, MacPherson will assume the role of the federation’s past president. Calling her current role “right up there” in a long line of achievements, MacPherson puts being a mother to her 17-year-old daughter at the top.

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As the Yellowknifer’s crime reporter, it’s my job to keep readers up to speed on all-things “cops and courts” related. From house fires and homicides to courtroom clashes, it’s my responsibility to be there - day or night, rain or shine. When I’m not at court gathering stories, I’m in the office, making calls to lawyers, emailing RCMP and tracking down sources. After hours, I rely on the public to let me know what’s happening and where. Entering my second winter in Yellowknife since leaving my hometown of Peterborough, Ont., in October 2017, everyday on this beat continues to be challenging, rewarding and fulfilling. Got a story? Call me at (867) 766-8288 or shoot me an email at editorial@nnsl.com.