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Indigenous leaders call for 'immediate change' in wake of Ontario law school dean's resignation

Indigenous leaders representing dozens of First Nations communities across northwestern Ontario are calling for "immediate change" at Lakehead University after the resignation of the dean of its law school.

Angelique EagleWoman celebrated as 1st female Indigenous law school dean in Canada when hired in 2016

Angelique EagleWoman has cited 'systemic issues' at Lakehead University and challenges in implementing the university law school's Indigenous law mandate as reasons for her pending departure. (Heather Kitching / CBC)

Indigenous leaders representing dozens of First Nations communities across northwestern Ontario are calling for "immediate change" at Lakehead University after the resignation of the dean of its law school.

In addition, at least one Indigenous faculty member at the Thunder Bay, Ont.,-based university and a First Nations advisor to the law school are supporting Angelique EagleWoman, after she claimed systemic racism and discrimination were at the core of her decision to leave.

EagleWoman cited "systemic issues within the university" and "challenges" in implementing the law school's Indigenous law mandate in an email sent to students in early April internally announcing her resignation. On Tuesday, she said she was eventually required to teach all compulsory Indigenous law courses and that her concerns about staffing, a lack of respect in the workplace as well as calls for cultural competency training at Lakehead went unheeded by the school's leadership.

Angelique Eaglewoman on LU Law 0:51

"As an Indigenous woman and the only Indigenous dean, I felt that my opinions weren't valued or respected," she said. "So when I offered solutions, they were often outright denied."

"At times, I went to people higher in the administration and asked for their intervention and, again, it all led to me seeing there was no way forward."

EagleWoman was hired as the second dean of the fledgling law school in 2016. At the time, the university touted her as the first Indigenous woman to hold that position in Canada. EagleWoman then praised the university faculty's focus on rural and small-town practice, environmental law and Indigenous law.

She said she will be going on stress leave in May; her resignation takes effect at the end of June.

We hear from Angelique EagleWoman, the dean of Lakehead University's law school who recently tendered her resignation, about why she's felt continuing in the role was 'untenable' 6:13

Joint recommendations

On Tuesday, leaders from two treaty organizations in northern Ontario — Nishnawbe Aski Nation and Grand Council Treaty Three — along with those from the Métis Nation of Ontario and Fort William First Nation held a press conference at Fort William, which is adjacent to Thunder Bay.

They made several recommendations, including that Lakehead commit to appointing an Indigenous person as EagleWoman's successor, that an independent review examine "all issues and allegations" raised by her and that appropriate measures are subsequently taken, that Fort William First Nation have a seat on a First Nations advisory council to the university and that only Indigenous professors teach the mandatory Indigenous law courses.

The recommendations also included a "reconciliation strategy" at the university to address an "institutional framework of discrimination, racism and unconscious privilege," and intensive cultural sensitivity training.

Focusing on Aboriginal and Indigenous law is one of the three core mandates of the Lakehead law school — and one of the reasons it was accredited to open in 2013.

"It's systemic, it's in the system," said Celina Reitberger, a Thunder Bay lawyer, who spent 15 years with Nishnawbe Aski Legal Services and currently sits on the Aboriginal advisory committee to the law school. "It's so engrained in the system that it's going to take a long time to change it."

"The [committee] has come up with quite a list of things that could change this and I think, in fact, we're feeling like we dropped the ball because we thought 'oh, we've got an Indigenous dean now and everything's going to be great,'" Reitberger continued.

"Sadly it wasn't."

Law school Dean Angelique Eaglewoman has tendered her resignation from Lakehead University's Bora Laskin School of Law. She cites systemic racism issues within the university. Celina Reitberger is an indigenous lawyer, who sits on the aboriginal advisory committee for the Law school. 4:46

Systemic issues raised before, Indigenous studies professor says

Lakehead University told CBC News in an emailed statement on Tuesday that it is "listening to, and reflecting on, what has been shared by our region's Indigenous leadership."

"We are committed to creating the conditions whereby everyone at Lakehead University can flourish and we look forward to ongoing dialogue and action," the statement continued, adding that the university is expected to issue further comment on Wednesday.

But similar criticism over discrimination has also been levelled by another member of the university's faculty.
Angelique EagleWoman addresses a press conference in Fort William First Nation on Tuesday where Indigenous leaders called for change at Lakehead University. (Christina Jung / CBC)

"[Angelique EagleWoman] came along when it was politically right to have an Aboriginal person in charge of the law school," Dennis McPherson, a professor of Indigenous studies at Lakehead, told CBC News. "It makes Lakehead University look really good, except that the support is not there."

"From my perspective, basically she was set up," McPherson continued. "I empathize with her, I sympathize with her."

McPherson said he's also experienced what he called systemic racism at the university, claiming that the faculty in which he teaches — formerly called the Native studies program, it's now known as the Department of Indigenous Learning — has been treated differently than others.

"My expectation was that it would be on the same level as the English department, the history department ... and lo-and-behold, I find out that the Department of Indigenous Learning isn't on the same level," he said.

"If it weren't for special funding coming to the institution, then we wouldn't exist."

'Not a witch hunt'

First Nation leaders, including Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Derek Fox (centre) spoke to the media and other leaders about the allegations of discrimination and racism raised by Angelique EagleWoman. (Christina Jung / CBC)

The decision to speak out was not intended to be a "witch-hunt," against Lakehead, said Derek Fox, a deputy grand chief with Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nations in northern Ontario.

"We're not out to attack anybody here, it's more to create awareness to ensure that for future generations and from this point forward, that there's improvements in the law school," he said.

Fox, who is also a lawyer, said these types of conversations need to be happening everywhere.

"It's an awareness and education and just getting our people to work together," he said. "[This] could be used as an example of how we can improve the relationships, which we know are an issue in Thunder Bay."

"If we've got to start at Lakehead University, then let's do that."

With files from Heather Kitching and Superior Morning