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Nunavut's law grads

John Thompson
Northern News Services

Iqaluit (June 20/05) - As an RCMP officer, Henry Coman is accustomed to filling out a long trail of paperwork. Now, after four years of law school, he has a better idea where it leads.

NNSL photo

After ploughing through dense legal reading for four years, Henry Coman will graduate from the Akitsiraq law program this week. He's the only male graduate from the program, a joint project between Nunavut Arctic College and the University of Victoria. - John Thompson/NNSL photo

Coman is one of 11 graduates of the Akitsiraq law program, a one-off project launched by Nunavut Arctic College with the University of Victoria in September 2001, in an effort to bring Inuit perspectives and legal expertise together.

Four years and about $5 million later, the graduates will gather this Tuesday, on Aboriginal Day, at a ceremony that will attract luminaries like Governor General Adrienne Clarkson.

For Coman, the sheer volume of reading during the program was a steep challenge. He looks forward to curling up in bed with a good science fiction novel rather than dense tomes on the intricacies of criminal law.

But he'll be putting his knowledge to practice during the day, as he articles in the Crown attorney office in Iqaluit.

"At the end of the day you're helping victims of crime who may not have a voice of their own."

Like other grads, Coman said location was a big draw. Past attempts at establishing an Inuit law program taught down south had foundered, so Akitsiraq was taught almost exclusively in Iqaluit, with professors from across Canada flown up to teach.

"I probably wouldn't consider (taking) a southern law program," he said.

When Aaju Peter watched lawyer Dougald Brown argue that Nunavut's shrimp allocations were unfair compared to what southern jurisdictions enjoyed, she knew who she wanted to work with after graduating.

"I walked up and said I want to article with you."

The mother of five will soon work with Brown in the offices of Nelligan O'Brien Payne in Ottawa. She doesn't look forward to the damp air and chilly social climate down south, but hopes to learn how to better argue on issues she sees as pressing, like copyright of traditional Inuit knowledge and Canadian sovereignty of the Arctic.

"Until you understand how something works, you can't change it. You have to speak the language."

Watching her grades plummet during the first year came as a big shock. "It was like dropping someone in ice cold water," she said. "It was devastating."

Now that she's through, she sees herself as a new person.

"I'm a lot more aggressive. I think I'm ready to jump into anything, and just fight."

Qajaq Robinson bristles at the suggestion by some critics that Akitsiraq doesn't meet southern standards. Inside the law library of the Nunavut Court of Justice where she articles as a clerk, she plucks textbooks from the shelf, written by professors like John Burrows and Allan Manson, who taught her.

The students' degrees are accredited by the University of Victoria, considered one of the best law schools in the country, she said.

"It gets me really mad. I think there's no justification to it."

Robinson worked as a youth corrections officer before attending law school. Now she looks forward to teaching students in high school their rights, both under the charter and the land claims agreement, as part of her article.

Future leaders

But why train lawyers, when there's a strong need for other professionals, like accountants, nurses and mental health workers?

Northern director Shelley Wright agrees other professions need similar programs, but says focusing on the price tag is short sighted.

"I know it's expensive, but in the long run, we're training people who will be contributing to Nunavut for 30 to 40 years."

"We're training leaders for the future."

Akitsiraq grads

  • Lillian Aglukark
  • Siobhan Arnatsiaq-Murphy
  • Henry Coman
  • Susan Enuaraq
  • Sandra Inutiq
  • Constance Merkosak
  • Sandra Omik
  • Aaju Peter
  • Madeleine Redfern
  • Qajaq Robinson
  • Naomi Wilman