'My Indigenous identity is what keeps me grounded,' says Yellowknifer celebrating law degree

Amelia Harman of Yellowknife just graduated from law school at the University of Calgary. "My Indigenous identity is what keeps me grounded," she said of the challenging and rewarding experience.

'I knew I wanted to kind of do something with purpose,' says Amelia Harman

A portrait of three people smiling.
Amelia Harman with her brother, Alan Harman, and dad Al Harman, at a graduation ceremony in Banff. She received her law degree from the University of Calgary in June. (Submitted by Amelia Harman)

Going to law school wasn't exactly top of mind for Yellowknife's Amelia Harman when she was in high school. 

"It was not something I considered, to be honest, because I didn't think it was something I was capable of achieving," she told CBC's Loren McGinnis, host of The Trailbreaker.

During her undergrad, Amelia, who is Chipewyan Dene and North Slave Métis, switched her major a few times, and ended up taking a few years off in between studies. It was during that time off when she began to realize what she hoped to do.

"I knew I wanted to kind of do something with purpose and kind of improve the … prevailing discourse for Indigenous peoples in Canada, and also act as a role model for young Indigenous peoples, including young Indigenous females," she said.

This June, she graduated from the University of Calgary with a law degree, to add to her master's degree in public policy.

A woman with a tradditional blanket wrapped around her, given to her by two elders in tradditional Indigenous regalia.
Amelia receives a Pendleton blanket from elders Rose Crowshoe and Reg Crowshoe, at the University of Calgary Faculty of Law Indigenous graduation ceremony. (Chris Wedman/Submitted by Amelia Harman)

Amelia was among 78 Indigenous graduates from the university's classes of 2021 and 2022, which took part in a joint ceremony this year. Elders presented the graduates with gifts, including traditional blankets.

Amelia said she's looking at specializing in environmental and energy law and their relation to Indigenous rights.

Support along the way

Amelia said her family supported her throughout her education. Her mom, Bertha Harman, was her role model growing up.

"She's a strong Indigenous woman," Amelia said. "[She] has been a pillar of strength for me. So just kind of hearing her advocate throughout the years and how she supports and advocate for Indigenous peoples is kind of just something that is enmeshed within me."

Bertha said she was "just beside" herself about her daughter graduating from law school.

Seven people stand outside a tipi, the woman in the middle wears graduation regalia and holds a sign reading '2022.'
Amelia with family and supporters at the University of Calgary Indigenous graduation ceremony. Left to right are Ray Jones, Al Harman, Bertha Harman, Emily Jones, Amelia Harman, Angela Jones and Trevor Strong. (Submitted by Amelia Harman)

"We're just so happy for her that, you know, she decided to go that route," Bertha said.

"There's a lot of people who think they can't do it or have been told they can do it," she said. "You can do it. You really can if you put your mind to it, the hard work, but you can do it. 

"Now she's got a future ... and who knows what next is gonna happen."

Returning the mentorship

During her studies, Amelia was the first-ever recipient of the Hersh E. Wolch, QC Memorial Award for Indigenous Law Students, which came with support, mentorship and encouragement from members of the Wolch family and the Rodin family. She also credits Anita Dusevic Oliva for helping her along the way. 

"They have been monumental, just kind of guiding me and providing me support along the way, because law is a completely different world. It's almost like a silo within society," said Amelia.

"I didn't really have an idea of how to navigate the legal world."

A woman outside throwing her graduation cap in the air.
Amelia graduated from the University of Calgary law school, and will soon start a job in the city. But, she says the North will always be her home. (Submitted by Amelia Harman)

Amelia was also pleased to discover a supportive community within that world. 

"[Law] is also a big community, which is what I also learned from the mentorship and a lot of people just really want the best for you, and they are willing to support you and help guide you."

Law school at times was a challenging environment, she added.

"My Indigenous identity is what keeps me grounded," she said.

Amelia said getting her degrees helped give her an "opportunity to have a voice," though Amelia added, people shouldn't have to get degrees to do so.

"In order for things to change, I just thought I should go to school, get these degrees, and I'll have kind of a place where I could speak about certain issues and help improve things for people and do good things," Amelia said.

She's now starting a career in Calgary, though she said the North will always be home to her. And, she added, the North is "a big inspiration for what I am doing, and it informs my experience in Calgary."

Written by Amy Tucker with files from Jenna Dulewich