Women in the Ontario Legal Profession: Indigenous Women Lawyers

by Mary Jane Mossman


My current research project focuses on women who were called to the bar of Ontario between 1897 and 1957. As the Law Society’s 1993 exhibition about the history of women lawyers explained, most of these women were middle-class, white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, with just a ‘scattering of Catholics and a few Jewish women’; their fathers were usually (but not always) professionals.[i] In this context, women who entered the ‘gentleman’s profession’ of law were often ‘gentlemen’ in every respect except gender.

Beginning in the decade of the 1960s, however, the legal profession began to exhibit more diversity. As explained in my recent Blog, the first Black woman joined the Ontario bar in 1960 – even though Black men had become lawyers in Ontario much earlier in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.[ii] This pattern was similar for Indigenous lawyers: although a few Indigenous men became lawyers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Indigenous women did not attend law schools in Canada until the 1970s.

The first Indigenous woman to be called to the bar in Canada was Marion Ironquill Meadmore. A Cree/Ojibwe woman from Saskatchewan, she attended a Residential School in Manitoba and then married and raised three sons while participating actively in Winnipeg’s Indigenous community. For example, she created the first Indian and Metis Friendship Centre and edited an Indigenous newspaper in Winnipeg. Ironquill Meadmore attended the law school at the University of Manitoba, graduating in 1977; she was called to the bar in Manitoba in June 1978. She remained active in the Indigenous community and was awarded the Order of Canada in 1985.[iii]

The first Indigenous woman in Canada to graduate from law school was Roberta Jamieson in Ontario. A member of the Six Nations of the Grand River, she graduated in law from the University of Western Ontario in 1976. Jamieson initially worked as Executive Assistant in the Indian Commission Office of Ontario, and she was later called to the Ontario bar in 1981. Jamieson was appointed Ombudsman in Ontario in 1989, the first woman to hold this office. She also remained actively involved in Indigenous issues and was awarded the Order of Canada in 1995.[iv]

The first Indigenous woman to be called to the Ontario bar was Delia Opekokew in 1979. A member of the Canoe Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, she attended Residential School in the province and, after taking a secretarial course, worked for the provincial government and the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians for a few years. After moving to Winnipeg, she became actively involved in the Indigenous community there, working with Ironquill Meadmore. Together, these two women signed up for a few undergraduate courses at the University of Manitoba, and they then discovered the existence of the Pre-Law summer program for Indigenous students at the University of Saskatchewan. Although Ironquill Meadmore then attended law school at the University of Manitoba, Opekokew moved with her husband to Toronto where she attended Osgoode Hall Law School. Like her friend in Manitoba, Opekokew graduated from law school in 1977, but she was not called to the bar until 1979 because of the longer program of articling and coursework in Ontario. In addition to becoming the first Indigenous woman to be called to the bar in Ontario, she was also the first to be admitted to the bar in Saskatchewan in 1983.[v]

Opekokew practised briefly in Toronto and then returned to Saskatchewan as counsel to the Federation of Saskatchwan Indians from 1980-85; she was involved in negotiations about Aboriginal rights in the context of patriation of the Constitution. She later returned to Toronto to practise law, including work on several Indigenous land claims. Opekokew was a commissioner in the Inquiry into the shooting death of Leo Lachance; and counsel to the family after the death of ‘Dudley’ George, killed by police at Ipperwash Provincial Park. In 1994, she was the first woman to run in the election for the Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. From 2008-17, she was Deputy Chief Adjudicator for the Independent Assessment Process in relation to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. Opekokew was awarded the Law Society Medal in 2013 and an honorary doctorate from the Law Society of Ontario in 2019.[vi]

A number of Indigenous women have received judicial appointments. Terry Vyse, a Mohawk woman, was the first Indigenous woman to be appointed a judge of the Ontario Court of Justice (Provincial Division) in 1991.[vii] Rose Toodick Boyko, a member of the McLeod Lake Indian Band, became the first Indigenous woman to be appointed to a Superior Court of Justice in Canada in 1994.[viii] The first Metis woman lawyer in Ontario was Helen Pierce; she was called to the bar in 1982 and practised law in Sault Ste Marie until 2001, when she was appointed a judge. In 2009, she was appointed Regional Senior Judge of the Northwest Region.[ix] At Osgoode Hall Law School, Susan Hare, a member of the M’Chigeeng Nation on Manitoulin Island, graduated and was then called to the Ontario bar in 1995. As a student, Hare worked with Professor Alan Grant to create the Intensive Program in Indigenous Lands, Resources and Governments; Hare was the first Indigenous woman to be elected a Law Society Bencher in Ontario in 2007.[x]

At the same time, Indigenous women lawyers did not always experience law school and legal practice in positive ways, after ‘the door [was] open.’ Delia Opekokew faced many new challenges at Osgoode Hall Law School, where she was one of only two Indigenous students at the school; the other student was Harry LaForme, who was later appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal, the only Indigenous appellate judge in Canada.[xi] In 1988, Patricia Monture (later Monture-Angus), a Mohawk woman and graduate in law at Queen’s University, filed an action against the Ontario Attorney General and the Law Society because she objected to swearing allegiance to the Queen in the call to the bar ceremony; for Monture, it was not appropriate to swear allegiance to a ‘foreign’ monarch, and she wished to carry an eagle feather at the ceremony, symbolizing a commitment to tell the truth in her own culture. In 1992, the Law Society voted to make the loyalty oath optional and Monture was then called to the Ontario bar.[xii]

Moreover, like other Indigenous lawyers, Monture remained critical of other aspects of Canadian law. Significantly, although she acknowledged how litigation by white feminists had succeeded in establishing precedents about gender equality in Canadian courts, she expressed concern that cases based on white women subjects might create ‘a social construction of women that is already judicially determined, ill fitted, and potentially a new site of colonial imposition [for Indigenous women].’[xiii] In addition a study in Alberta reported that ‘Aboriginal lawyers recognize that they are practising law from the perspective of “colonizer”’; in this context, they may be regarded by family and friends as a ‘sell-out’ or ‘working for the enemy.’[xiv]

Thus, for Indigenous lawyers (including women and men) Judith Bennett’s argument that change may more often result in continuity rather than transformation in status (discussed in Blogs #1 and #2)[xv] requires us to compare the experiences of Indigenous lawyers to both white men and white women who are lawyers. As the late Rose Voyvodic suggested, systemic change in the legal profession requires ‘people to relearn their roles and to think of the current system as a complex network of values.’[xvi]







[i] Law Society of Upper Canada Archives, Crossing the Bar: A Century of Women’s Experience ‘Upon the Rough and Troubles Seas of Legal Practice’ in Ontario (Toronto: Law Society of Upper Canada Archives, 1993) at 15.

[ii] See Blog # 2: Women in the Ontario Legal Profession: Black Women Lawyers.

[iii] ‘Marion Ironquill Meadmore,’ The Canadian Encyclopedia, online; Law Society of Manitoba, records of Call to the Bar.

[iv] ‘Roberta Jamieson,’ Wikipedia; and ‘Recent Appointments: Roberta Louise Jamieson’ (1990) 3:1 Without Prejudice at 3 (the newsletter of the Women’s Law Association of Ontario).

[v] Law Society of Ontario, ‘Diversifying the Bar’: Delia Opekokew; and Delia Opekokew interview 2011-12 at 1-40.

[vi] Law Society of Ontario, ‘Diversifying the bar’: Delia Opekokew; and ‘Delia Opekokew,’ Indigenous Saskatchewan Encyclopedia. See also ‘Law Society to Honour Trailblazing Advocate Delia Opekokew with Honorary Doctorate,’ Law Society Gazette, online: 19 Sept 2019; D. Opekokew, The First Nations: Indian Government and the Canadian Confederation (Saskatoon: Federation of Saskatchewan Indians, 1980); and Opekokew, The First Nations: Indian Government in the Community of Man (Regina: Federation of Saskatchewan Indians, 1982).

[vii] ‘Recent Appointments: Terry Vyse’ (1992) 5:2 Without Prejudice (WLAO) at 2.

[viii] ‘Rose Toodick Boyko,’ Wikipedia. Boyko received an honorary doctorate at Queen’s University in 1999.

[ix] Law Society of Ontario, ‘Diversifying the Bar’: Helen Pierce.

[x] Law Society of Ontario, ‘Diversifying the Bar’: Susan Hare; and LSO Archives, Bencher files.

[xi] Delia Opekokew interview 2011-12; and Ontario courts, online: ‘Harry S. LaForme.’

[xii] Patricia Monture (later Monture-Angus), ‘Now that the Door is Open: First Nations and the Law School Experience’ (1990) 15 Queen’s Law Journal 179. See also T. Lindberg, ‘What Do You Call an Indian Woman with a Law Degree – Nine Aboriginal Women at the University of Saskatchewan College of Law Speak Out’ (1997) 9 Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 301; E. Carasco, ‘A Case of Double Jeopardy: Race and Gender’ (1993) 6:1 Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 142; and obituary, ‘Patricia Monture Angus,’ Globe and Mail, 2 Dec 2010 online.

[xiii] P. Monture, ‘The Right of Inclusion: Aboriginal Rights and/or Aboriginal Women?’ in K. Wilkins, ed., Advancing Aboriginal Claims (Saskatoon: Purich, 2004) 39 at 46. See also E. Snyder, ‘Indigenous Feminist Legal Theory’ (2014) 26 Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 365; and J. Green, ed., Making Space for Indigenous Feminism, 2nd ed (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2017).

[xiv] J. Brockman, ‘An Update on Gender and Diversity in the Legal Profession in Alberta, 1991-2003’ in E. Sheehy and S. McIntyre, eds., Calling for Change: Women, Law, and the Legal Profession (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2006) 237 at 241. See also, in the same volume, S. McIvor, ‘Aboriginal Women: Working in Coalition to Advance Sex Equality’ at 253; and Working Group on Racial Equality in the Legal Profession, Racial Equality in the Legal Profession (Ottawa: Canadian Bar Association, 1999).

[xv] J. Bennett, ‘Theoretical Issues: Confronting Continuity’ (1997) 9:3 Journal of Women’s History 73; and other works cited in Blog #1.

[xvi] R. Voyvodic, ‘Reimagining Legal Ethics after Touchstones for Change’ in E. Sheehy and S. McIntyre, eds., Calling for Change: Women, Law, and the Legal Profession (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2006) 345 at 354. See also, in the same volume, M.J. Mossman, ‘Education as a Strategy for Change’ 179. Both comments responsed to the report of the Canadian Bar Association: Touchstones for Change: Equality, Diversity, Accountability (Ottawa: Canadian Bar Association, 1993).

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