Indigenous land issues inspire winning essay

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Robin Vernest came to law school knowing first-hand what struggles Indigenous peoples faced. A Métis woman from Antigonish, she had an established career working with Indigenous peoples prior to attending the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University. 
 
She held several management roles building capacity and community growth in the areas of governance and economic development. It was during this time that she recognized the importance of land to the well-being of Indigenous people – socially, spiritually, culturally and economically. The historical deprivation of an adequate land base has, in her view, limited their access to traditional resources and strikes at their sovereignty – which is synonymous with land issues for Indigenous peoples around the world.
 
Vernest’s paper on the subject, "Land: Inherent to Indigenous Sovereignty – The Crown must honour their solemn promises," earned her the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society 2015 Race and the Law Essay Prize. Now in its eighth year, the prize was created to recognize and encourage outstanding scholarship by law students in Nova Scotia on issues of race and law. The prize is presented by the Racial Equity Committee with sponsorship from Stewart McKelvey.
 
Indigenous people have traditionally been the caretakers of the land ... and their principles of environmental protection and conservation are vital to our collective future.” 
The winning paper argues that Indigenous sovereignty cannot be asserted without first establishing an adequate land base. The deprivation of land has resulted in Indigenous people being unable to improve their personal or communal situation. 
 
Vernest guides readers through an examination of Canadian laws and policies that have resulted in a historical tradition of "colonial land theft and regulation." She then turns her eye to a line of Supreme Court of Canada cases and the subsequent reactions by Parliament to explore the role the courts have played in helping Indigenous peoples achieve their rights. The impact of this issue extends to non-Indigenous Canadians as well, she notes.
 
“Indigenous people have traditionally been the caretakers of the land ... and their principles of environmental protection and conservation are vital to our collective future.” 
 
The Crown’s duty to consult and possibly accommodate where Aboriginal rights may be adversely affected allows Indigenous people to continue this caretaker role. This voice puts Indigenous people in a unique position to protect against environmental threats. However, Vernest concludes her paper with a lament that although the courts have recognized a need for accommodation, there has been inattention and a lack of political action on the part of the Canadian public.
 
During the summer of 2015, Vernest took these issues to the world stage. She was selected to participate in the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Indigenous Fellowship Programme in Geneva. The program launched in 1997 with the aim of providing Indigenous people from around the world with training and expertise in the UN system and human rights mechanisms relating to both general and indigenous issues. After completing the program, fellows are in a better position to protect and promote the rights of their communities at the international level. It was here that Vernest was able to connect with colleagues from around the globe and learn about issues facing Indigenous peoples elsewhere.
 
“Sadly, Canada is not unique with respect to its laws and policies which have supported the colonial project of land theft and regulation,” she says. “While, admittedly, there are some countries with more severe Indigenous human rights violations, as a developed country Canada should have a much better international track record.”
Who will win in 2016?
The Society is accepting submissions for the 2016 Race and the Law Essay Prize until May 1, 2016. Applicants must be currently or previously enrolled in the JD program at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University.

Find out more about the submission process and read Robin Vernest’s winning paper at nsbs.org/race-and-law-essay-prize.

Now Vernest is focusing on completing her articles and beginning a legal practice that will continue her efforts to advance the rights of Indigenous peoples. While she hopes to practise in a variety of areas of law, criminal justice in particular has caught her eye. She notes that although Indigenous people make up less than five per cent of the Canadian population, they represent a quarter of those incarcerated.
 
Vernest has one piece of advice for the profession: “There are so many myths and stereotypes about Indigenous peoples in Canada. Everyone, but particularly those in the legal profession, have a duty to educate themselves on the realities so we all can share this land in a more egalitarian way.”
 
— Article by Kevin Hong, Student, Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University