Indigenous lawyers speak out about bias, racism at work

Ardith Walkem said she hopes the stories in the video 'But I was wearing a suit' will shine a light on how Indigenous lawyers are treated within the profession and in the legal system.

Video 'But I was wearing a suit' shares stories of more than a dozen lawyers

A statue of Lady Justice, blindfolded and holding balanced scales, at Vancouver's Supreme Court. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

Ardith Walkem knows firsthand what it's like to be seen in a courthouse as something other than what she really is: a lawyer.

Now she's sharing the stories of more than a dozen Indigenous lawyers — their experiences with racism and bias on the job — through a video project called But I was wearing a suit

While the stories cover a range of specific circumstances, at the core they mostly involve Indigenous lawyers in situations where they were not recognized as lawyers by others in the courthouse.

Walkem said she hopes the stories will shine a light on how Indigenous lawyers are treated within the profession and more importantly, open up a conversation about how other Indigenous people are being treated in the legal system.

"If this is happening to us, I can't even imagine how much more scary it must be to be in court for anything else, when you're not a lawyer. I just can't," she said.

The video was created with support from the Law Society of B.C. and the Continuing Legal Education Society of B.C.

Teresa Sheward, a program lawyer with the society, said they've been working with Walkem for years, largely in the field of educating lawyers on Indigenous issues.

"So when she had this idea we were absolutely, just a big huge 'yes,'" she said.  

'But I was wearing a suit'

Walkem shares her own story in the video, too.

Walkem talks about the day she was at the courthouse dressed in a suit, ready to represent two hunters in a criminal case in Duncan, B.C., when she was approached by a RCMP officer who somehow assumed she was a victim of domestic violence and asked if she needed protection from her spouse before a court hearing.

Then, moments later, she was approached by a defence lawyer who asked if she was a client in need of legal representation.

"So there were all of these assumptions about me, either that I was a victim of violence or that I was being charged with a crime," she said.

"But those are the assumptions when you see an Indigenous person, an Indigenous woman in court. Not that maybe she's a lawyer, but there's these other automatic assumptions."

Ardith (Walpetko We’dalx) Walkem is a member of the Nlaka’pamux Nation and a lawyer at Cedar and Sage Law Corp. (Nadya Kwandibens/Red Works Photography)

Several people in the video shared stories of people assuming they weren't a lawyer. They talked about other lawyers approaching them and telling them the barrister's lounge is reserved for lawyers only; about being told to step away from the bar by court staff who assumed they were a client.

One woman told a story that was particularly shocking to Walkem. The identify of the woman is not disclosed in the video. Her story, read aloud by lawyer Rolf Warburton, is that during an articling interview a managing partner said "Aboriginal women are breeders, when will you start pumping out babies and become useless to the firm?"

"There's something rather shocking that this is happening to Indigenous women," said Walkem.

She added that most people wanted to remain anonymous in the video because they feared repercussions in their professional life. She also pointed out that most of the submissions they received were from Indigenous women.

While Walkem said she's not sure how to draw the connection precisely, she sees the overrepresentation of Indigenous women in these stories as pointing to a bigger societal problem.

"It's not by accident that we have thousands of murdered and missing women. We have that in part because when people have to go up through the legal system, or when they seek protection from the legal system, it's not happening because of biases."

'There were audible gasps'

Two weeks ago more than 300 lawyers gathered at the Pan Pacific hotel in Vancouver for an all-day truth and reconciliation symposium, put on by the Law Society of B.C. and the Continuing Legal Education Society of B.C..

The purpose of the symposium was to get people from the legal profession together to build on ongoing efforts to implement the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

I saw people absolutely stunned and shocked and embarrassed.- Ardith Walkem, lawyer

The day began with a screening of But I was wearing a suit.

"There were audible gasps," said Sheward, recounting the reaction of those in the room. 

"I saw people absolutely stunned and shocked and embarrassed," said Walkem.

"Some people would flinch as though they were hit; it was very serious."

Sheward said it's important for people in the legal profession to hear this truth from their Indigenous colleagues.

"Before we can talk about any kind of solution, or any kind of reconciliation or any kind of fixing, we have to have the truth," she said. 

"The people that are carrying this burden need to have a place to put it. We have to listen."

With the first video out and published online, Sheward said the hope is to continue with the initiative. She said anyone who would like to share their story can get in touch with the Continuing Legal Education Society of B.C., online.