Prospective Nunavut lawyers can now apply to in-territory program

More than a decade after 11 students graduated from Nunavut's Akitsiraq law program, Nunavut Arctic College is now taking applications for a new degree-granting program it will run with the University of Saskatchewan.

4-year program from Nunavut Arctic College and University of Saskatchewan will start September 2017

Paul Quassa, the minister responsible for Nunavut Arctic College, says he looks forward to the start of a new law program from the Iqaluit-based college and the University of Saskatchewan. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

Nunavut Arctic College is now accepting applications for a highly anticipated law program, which will accept up to 25 people from across the territory. 

"I look forward to the first intake of students into the law program in the fall of 2017," Paul Quassa, the minister responsible for Nunavut Arctic College, announced in the legislature Friday.

The college is partnering with the University of Saskatchewan for the degree-granting program, which comes more than a decade after 11 students graduated from Nunavut's Akitsiraq, the territory's first law program.

That program's 2005 cohort — while small — includes lawyers who have gone on to claim some major accomplishments, both in Nunavut and in Southern Canada. 

Madeleine Redfern, who graduated from the program, worked as a clerk at the Supreme Court of Canada, before becoming Iqaluit's mayor and winning an Indspire award for public service last year.

One of the five commissioners chosen for the federal inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, Qajaq Robinson, is also a graduate. 

Addresses 'acute need' for Inuit lawyers

A final report on the first Akitsiraq program outlined how it was designed to address "an acute need for Inuit lawyers in Nunavut."

When Nunavut became a territory, it had only one Inuk lawyer in the territory, Paul Okalik, Nunavut's first premier. 

Earlier this year, when the government announced it was on track to deliver another four-year, degree program, Okalik reiterated the importance of having more Inuit lawyers.

"We are supposed to be a trilingual jurisdiction, and we can't even write our laws in Inuktitut because we don't have Inuktitut-speaking lawyers to assist us in drafting," he told CBC at the time.

Despite a growing pool of "talented and intelligent" future lawyers, the Akitsiraq Law School Society wrote that there were still a number of hurdles for Inuit to clear if they wished to pursue getting a law degree in the south, including the inability to leave their families and community for an extended period of time. 

Challenges during the first Akitsiraq program

Students in the 2005 Akitsiraq program faced a number of financial, cultural, linguistic and emotional challenges during the four years.

Both the program's final report and an external review of the program written for the federal Department of Justice suggested any future programs hire a full-time counsellor. 

"Issues such as finding child care or maintaining a sufficient income were ongoing challenges for a number of students," the federal report stated.

"Respondents also noted that, in addition to the responsibility some students had for their own children and families, many students had major responsibilities to extended family and the broader community as well."

On top of the predictable strain of taking a program as challenging as law school, the Akitsiraq graduates also dealt with significant personal crises, stemming from "suicide, substance abuse and violence," the federal report stated. 

These challenges were some times harder to address because of a lack of resources. 

"There is little or no counseling or psychological assistance available in Iqaluit," the law program's final report explained, "and the services at Nunavut Arctic College were not always trusted by students because of concerns over confidentiality."

One Akitsiraq grad also told consultants who wrote the federal report that public scrutiny of the program created additional pressure, saying "it was like we were in a fish bowl all the time."

Not every graduate was called to the bar, partly because of a lack of financial help after graduation and because of linguistic and cultural challenges. Many graduates have chosen to pursue fields outside of law for a number of reasons.

In 2010, the Nunavut government opted not to provide $5 million in core funding for another Akitsiraq program, saying it was focusing on improving education in primary and high schools across the territory. 

25 seats for new program

But starting in September 2017, 25 students will begin the new degree-granting law program through Nunavut Arctic College and the University of Saskatchewan. 

The program's website says it will "place emphasis on the development of skills in research, writing, analysis and negotiation."

Over four years, the program will teach the prospective lawyers about the basics of different types of law, including criminal and tort law. 

It is also planning to include courses about "Indigenous legal traditions" and the implications of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement.

On top of the courses offered at the college in Iqaluit, students will be able to spend a term at the University of Saskatchewan working on elective courses. 

The program is accepting applications until the end of the year