Posted: January 14, 2012
The N.W.T.’s newest Supreme Court justice, and the first Dene person to hold that position, was sworn in Friday in Yellowknife.
Shannon Smallwood of Fort Good Hope is also the only justice who was born in the territory.
Smallwood said growing up, she didn't know what it was to be a lawyer but her mother encouraged her to be anything she wanted.
“I thought, ‘well what's something that's an achievement?’And at that time, it was to be a doctor or a lawyer and I thought, ‘well, I'll be one of those’ and that's sort of where it started.”
She attended university and law school in Calgary, where she discovered the challenge of criminal law. She returned North to work as a crown prosecutor.
Yet she shies away from being called a role model.
“I see myself as a working mother, trying to juggle work and career and my family life,” she said. “But at the same, if people see me and say ‘if she can do it, I can do it,’ that's great.”
She hopes being called to the bench makes the jump from a small community to the territory's Supreme Court a little easier to imagine.
“Today I think we've made progress in the North. You see more people going to university, becoming doctors, becoming lawyers and returning to practise here. Those are the inspirations that we need.”
Keelen Simpson, a second-year law student from Hay River who is Métis, calls Smallwood's success inspirational.
“Someone from a small community in the North, who went to law school, got the degree and is now back in the North and helping the people that they grew up with? I think that's amazing,” she said.
Growing up, she didn't know many Northern lawyers.
“In terms of the Dene people in the North, young women in the North, it really provides role models, showing that if you want to do something you can go right ahead and do it.”
Caroline Wawzonek, an N.W.T. representative of the Canadian Bar Association, says having a Northern-born judge creates a stronger link with the territory's communities.
“It's been a long time coming and probably a bit overdue,” she said.
“The system is quite foreign to a lot of people in the communities still, so having any type of greater connection to what goes on in the justice system and their own lives will only help translate what we do in the courtroom to the communities we're trying to serve.”
Marilyn Napier, president of the N.W.T. Native Women's Association, said Smallwood is a role model.
“It's really wonderful to see an aboriginal woman in a career like that.”
Smallwood’s appointment also means the territory now has an all-female Supreme Court.
Wawzonek says women make up the majority of law school graduates but across the country, women don't hold top jobs at law firms and face challenges reaching up.
“So to have an all-female bench here is definitely something to be quite proud of,” she said. “It suggests something about the way we practise law in the North that is conducive to, or that might provide some leadership, so in that sense it's a real positive thing.”
Justice Edward Richard remains a supernumerary judge on the Supreme Court, meaning he has retired but continues to hear some cases when resident judges aren't available.
Smallwood also took oaths to be a justice for the Nunavut and Yukon Supreme Courts as well as the courts of appeal for the three territories. She is the first aboriginal person to sit on any of those six courts.