By Kathleen Martens
WINNIPEG – A veteran lawyer was found guilty of professional misconduct Tuesday for failing to properly represent a residential school survivor.
Moses Okimaw was handed a reprimand and ordered to pay $3,000 towards the Law Society of Manitoba’s costs of investigating and trying his case.
Okimaw then asked the three-member disciplinary panel for extended time to pay the fine.
The panel accepted the punishment jointly recommended by society counsel Rocky Kravetsky and Okimaw’s lawyer Martin Pollock. Okimaw did not attend the hearing at the society’s downtown Winnipeg office. Instead, he addressed the panel by phone:
“I regret it happened. It is a stain on my reputation. I never thought this would happen to me,” he said.
Okimaw pleaded guilty to one of two allegations of professional misconduct. In exchange, the second charge was dropped.
The panel was told Okimaw took over a case for another lawyer two weeks before a compensation hearing in August 2010 as part of the Independent Assessment Process (IAP). But Okimaw did not meet with the unidentified claimant beforehand, help prepare him for the hearing or keep him informed after the hearing.
The two met for the first time in the hearing room, as the hearing began – even though they were staying at the same rural Manitoba hotel. This is not the “level of service” a client should expect, said Kravetsky. Nor is it the standard set by the Indian Residential School Adjudication Secretariat, which oversees the IAP, Kravetsky added.
“He failed to meet the quality of service that is required and accepted.”
Pollock said his 69-year-old client was embarrassed by what happened. He said Okimaw was the only one of 10 children in his family to attend university, overcoming abuse he himself says he suffered at residential school and received compensation for.
Okimaw has represented his northern Manitoba community of God’s River as chief, and provided legal advice to numerous Aboriginal organizations over the past three decades.
“He’s a humble man and he’s a proud man,” Pollock said.
Okemow said he has helped about 30 residential school clients through their IAP hearings and tried to stop after he was charged by the law society, but his boss at Olschewski Davie in Winnipeg wouldn’t let him.
He said he was dreading today’s disciplinary hearing, but when the time came to say why he did what he did he told the panel: “I have no explanation for that.”
“I have learned from this complaint,” he added. “I swear to you that I will take every caution, every step that is needing to be taken. I have met the standards in my other claims.”
Pollock noted this was Okemow’s first offence in what has otherwise been a stellar legal career. “He’s contrite,” Pollock said.
Further, Pollock said, the claimant didn’t receive compensation and he suggested that wouldn’t have changed whether Okimaw had prepared him or not.
The compensation is paid to survivors who suffered serious physical and sexual abuse at the former government-funded schools.
The law society’s disciplinary committee can do everything from fine to disbar lawyers. This reprimand is now a permanent mark on Okimaw’s professional record.