Indigenous leaders in northern Ontario are calling on Lakehead University to revoke the appointment of its new interim law school dean, a judge who jailed six members of a First Nation community for trying to protect their territory from a mining company.
On Friday, the Thunder Bay university announced Justice George Patrick Smith would step into the interim role.
Ten years ago, Smith sentenced the chief and five councillors of the Kitchenumaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation in Treaty 9 to six months in jail for contempt of court.
The group – also known as the “KI6” – refused to stop blocking Platinex Inc. from accessing their territory.
After 10 weeks behind bars, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled the jail time was “too harsh.”
Chief Donny Morris was one of those jailed.
“For him to take interim… it has to be somebody else in that position,” Morris told APTN News.
“It is a polluted environment now. Some sort of opposition will be forthcoming in the form of a letter.”
The Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), which represents 49 First Nation communities in northern Ontario, is calling on Lakehead to rescind Smith’s appointment.
“It is an insult for Justice Smith to be appointed to lead an academic institution that prides itself on advancing Indigenous interests,” said Deputy Grand Chief Derek Fox in an emailed press release. “I question the university’s claims of his expertise in Indigenous legal issues when he does not recognize First Nations jurisdiction over our lands.”
Smith is temporarily replacing former law faculty dean Angelique EagleWoman until Lakehead hires someone full-time. EagleWoman announced her resignation in March, alleging systemic racism and gender discrimination among staff, faculty and senior administration at the university.
Dennis McPherson, associate professor with Lakehead’s department of Indigenous relations, sided with EagleWoman in her resignation, saying racism is nothing new to the university.
He called Smith’s appointment “ridiculous.”
“I think it’s a slap in the face to Indigenous people,” he said.
The Bora Laskin Faculty of Law is the country’s youngest law school. In 2013, Lakehead University and First Nations leaders in the area signed a protocol agreement to establish a new law school inclusive of Indigenous perspectives on law, culture and language.
The faculty’s website says the school is “committed to making a difference, providing access to justice, and leading the way for northern communities.”
Fox, who also sits on the law school’s Aboriginal Advisory Committee, said the committee was not consulted about Smith’s appointment, nor were members provided a rationale on his hiring.
“If I was in their position, I wouldn’t forget the fact that we only got the law school because of our Indigenous partners,” he told APTN. “If you’re going to appoint the interim dean, why would you not ask the Indigenous partners for their opinion? It makes no sense to me.”
A spokesperson for Lakehead University said the school will not comment on the appointment, as it reaches out to Indigenous leaders “to discuss the situation.”
“Obviously somebody in there didn’t do their homework on this guy,” said Morris.
After he and the other councilors were released, Morris said they invited the judge to the community. But Smith never accepted due to prior travel arrangements.
“He would’ve heard firsthand from our elders why we are like this,” Morris said. “We truly believe this is our land, our area, our issues, the non-native system is not recognized. It’s faith-based too, we believe God put us here. This is our area. We didn’t migrate here. We were born and raised here, this is our land, our territory and his expertise and his areas contradicts what we believe in.”
While Fox said racism is a problem in Thunder Bay, it’s not unique to universities across Canada.
But he has hope Lakehead can lead in changing the narrative.
“It’s no surprise to me that our university is kind of flooded with the same way of thinking, but I think that things can change and if we need to speak out against those things to bring change, then we’ll do that.”
– With files from Willow Fiddler