This piece was originally published on the Canadian Lawyers Abroad blog on Feb. 13, 2014.
Over the past five months I have been able to partake in something very special. Something that has not only brought me back to my roots but has reminded me why I began my journey into the legal profession and why, I as an Ojibway woman dared to dream.
You may have heard about Canadian Lawyers Abroad’s Dare to Dream program that was launched in 2012 at the First Nations School of Toronto and you may have heard about how the program aims to empower Aboriginal students and engage lawyers in mentoring activities, but you probably have not heard about how the program has impacted my life.
Upon entering the grade 7 and 8 classroom at the First Nations School of Toronto you are overcome with a sense of community, culture, and to be expected a little bit of commotion. The students are excited to have the Dare to Dream program back for another year but are also a little apprehensive about what we have in store for them. Each session starts off with a smudge, which is a cultural practice of burning medicines such as sage or sweetgrass to cleanse the spirit and to banish any negative energy or emotions.
Several volunteers have never been exposed to smudging and it is one of the many opportunities where the students teach us about cultural practices. After we all smudge an ice breaker game is often played which allows all of us to loosen up, act a little silly, and get to know each other. It is a rare sight to watch volunteers from law firms and organizations such as McMillan, Blakes, GE Capital, Olthius Kleer Townshend, Chiefs of Ontario, the Law Society of Upper Canada, and Legal Aid Ontario act out a game of “tiger, alien, and cow”.
However, we are not all there for just fun and games, we have some serious work to do. It is rare that anyone who follows the news does not know that Aboriginal youth are grossly over-represented in the Canadian justice system. It is also rare that one has not heard about the disparity of opportunity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal youth. Dare to Dream allows the students and volunteers to discuss these issues with the goal to close the gap in opportunity and to allow the students to engage in a healthy relationship with the law. One of the ways the program does this is by allowing the students to stand on all sides of the court and to run their very own criminal mock trial.
This year the students were given a fact scenario regarding an alleged theft of a “MyPod” music player from a busy store. Each student was given a role that they had to prepare for during the trial and the volunteers were assigned students to assist. The students’ inner court clerk, defence and crown counsel, trial witness, jury member, and court security were quickly brought to life by their zeal and appetite to succeed. For approximately two months the volunteers rallied around the students in preparation for the mock trial. Personalities emerged, confidence grew, and relationships were built during this time. I personally had the opportunity to work with a wonderful group of students and observed how much they changed from week to week and how their leadership skills developed over time. During the mock trial they transformed from unsure adolescents to confident young adults.
When the Honourable Justice Laforme once again presided as judge during the mock trial the students were not afraid to ask questions and take control. However, it was not only the students who were impacted by this program, but I also have been impacted as well.
Let me take you back to the 13 year old version of myself. I was awkward, shy, quiet, and living without a cultural identity. My mother is a victim of the sixties scoop and my grandmother a survivor of residential school. I was raised like both my grandmother and mother before me with little attachment to and knowledge of my Ojibway identity. As a youth I was aware that I did not fit in with others around me nor did I identify with my non-Aboriginal friends backgrounds and cultures. It was not until I was older and began to learn about who I was as a First Nation person that my passion to make an impact and empower my people grew. Hence my career in law. The Dare to Dream program and the First Nations School in particular has made me proud and excited for the future of my people. The students have shown so much strength, confidence, and leadership. They are a constant reminder that we as a people are strong and that with programs like Dare to Dream the future will be bright.
The students could not have gotten to where they are without some amazing people along the way. The many volunteers for their commitment and leadership. The Honourable Justice Laforme for his time, dedication, expertise, and passion to the students and the Dare to Dream program. Also the Ontario Justice Education Network deserves a big thank you for developing the mock trial materials and providing their support to the program. The sponsors that make the program happen, without their generous donations the program would not be able to flourish the way it has. The First Nations School of Toronto for their commitment and belief in the program and for opening their doors to a group of lawyers. And last but not least to the Grade 7 and 8 teacher Sharla Niroopan and her students for daring to dream with us and making the Aboriginal youth of today more empowered, confident, and strong.
When asked, “what is the number one thing you will always remember about this program?” some of the students’ responses were:
“The judge I think will stay with me.” – Tyrone
“The feeling of lots of lawyers watching me and my classmates speak in our courtroom.” – Julius
“Everybody’s roles and how much fun the experience was.” – Skyla
“All of the help the lawyers gave us on how to be a lawyer and why they are a lawyer.” – Troy
“Having a native judge come to our school and have a mock trial with us and say he feels like he’s at home.” – Aisha
“I think maybe to be confident.” – Danae
“All the fun that we did when we practiced.” – Josh
“The Dare to Dream program has really established a prestigious reputation amongst our school community. New this year was the junior grades watching their seniors in the criminal mock trial. A colleague who was sitting in the gallery mentioned buzz coming from the grade 5 and 6 students about what roles they wanted to claim when they were in grade 7 and 8. A culture of risk taking, critical thinking, and understanding the various roles and responsibilities involved in the justice system were the three most valuable teachings fostered by the Dare to Dream program. All of my students were proud of how successful and authentic the criminal mock trial was and appreciative of the time and efforts invested in them by the volunteer lawyers.” – Sharla Niroopan, Grade 7/8 Teacher, First Nations School of Toronto
“The students made me very proud. I will remember them for a long time. Indeed, they made me feel like I was home on my reserve and amongst my people. Dare to Dream is a terrific program, which I have no doubt will create new dreams in the students and I have every confidence that some of them will take it to heart. They are special young people and deserve the chance to go anywhere they want to in life. I believe they will. A big Chi Miigwetch to them and all the generous volunteers.” – The Honourable Justice Harry LaForme (the first Aboriginal person to be appointed to sit on any appellate court in the history of Canada).