Barry Wilson spent his youth fighting for Indigenous rights through protests and activism. Thanks to those efforts, his daughter Tara-Lynn Wilson can continue the fight for justice and reconciliation from within.
“The things that we are able to do right now in BC started with the things that he (and others) were doing,” she says. “They laid the groundwork. Now I’m going to use this opportunity to fight in my own way within the system so I can help the Indigenous population as well.”
Wilson, who recently completed her second year of TRU Law, is the first recipient of the Future Indigenous Lawyers (FIL) Award. The award is part of an initiative started to promote recruitment of and provide support to Indigenous law students. Fulton, a local law firm, has committed $75,000 to the fund and invites others to join the initiative. To date, additional donors Margot McMillan Law Corporation, the Law School Admissions Council and Edwards, Kenny & Bray LLP have added another $45,000 to the fund, which now sits at over $100,000.
“This gift had been in our plans for a long time. Many at our firm developed deep connections to survivors while hearing their stories as part of work representing them through residential school claims from 2000–2016,” says Fulton partner Dan Carroll. “That work, along with the deep respect for our past and current Indigenous Fultoners, has shaped our firm’s desire to continue being active in supporting and learning about reconciliation.”
He says the team is thrilled to see others stepping up in support of the initiative. “Law is a competitive field, and this is one of those rarer opportunities where local firms and lawyers can band together to improve the profession and wider community. We are grateful to be able to practically demonstrate support, and encourage others who can, to do the same.”
Currently, only about three per cent of people working in the legal profession in BC identify as Indigenous. On the flipside, there is an over-representation of Indigenous people in the Canadian justice system, both as victims and accused. Wilson, co-president of the TRU Indigenous Law Students Association, is working to help increase the number of Indigenous students attending law school. She is hopeful that positive changes and improved cultural understanding will result from having more Indigenous lawyers.
Indigenous representation creates understanding
“All Indigenous cultures are not the same. So, if we were to have a wide variety of Indigenous populations represented, it could help the legal system understand more,” said Wilson. “Indigenous people working in the legal system know first-hand what their people have gone through. I’m sure most of them are similar to me, learning as a child that there are certain things you can do and certain things you can’t do as an Indigenous person. Living through that discrimination, you have more empathy to situations other Indigenous people might be in.”
While Wilson says she hasn’t faced discrimination at TRU, in elementary school she was often bullied for being First Nations and says even though she feels like the majority of British Columbians have become more accepting of people’s differences, she still must be careful to protect herself in certain situations.
“I make sure I get a lot of TRU Law merchandise, like sweaters and hoodies — and I try to use them whenever the situation calls for it. If I’m going on a plane, for instance, I’ll wear it because then they feel I’m more trustworthy and they’ll feel like because I’m in law, I know my rights,” she says.
Wilson is Secwépemc on her mother’s side and Xen’ak’siala on her father’s side. She and her four sisters grew up northwest of Kamloops in Bonaparte, but spent a lot of time in Kitimat territory as well. She completed a Bachelor of Arts in psychology at TRU, and says at the back of her mind she always felt the pull of law school. She had the drive; she just needed the confidence.
“For a long time, I felt like I wasn’t smart enough to do it and then one day I thought, you know what, if I get in, I get in,” says Wilson. “I want to do all of this mainly for my nieces and nephews. I want to make sure they’re aware they can always go further. They shouldn’t let anything hold them back.”
Advocating for Indigenous learners
Since joining TRU Law, Wilson has immersed herself in the experience, taking more than a full course load while attending conferences and volunteering for multiple clubs at the executive level. She is also an Indigenous student advocate and was part of two moots (mock trials) in a single semester — a nearly unheard-of undertaking. In addition to receiving the Future Indigenous Lawyers Award, she is also a Michelle Pockey Leadership Award recipient.
TRU Law Dean Daleen Millard has regular interactions with Wilson and describes her as “smart, hardworking and well-liked and respected by her peers.”
“Tara-Lynn is an exceptional student,” Millard says. “Throughout our engagements, I always sense her sincerity and passion for Indigenous issues. She is selfless, energetic and galvanizes her fellow students around projects. Tara-Lynn also participated in the Kawaskimhon Moot and took on an extra workload in doing so.”
The Kawaskimhon Moot encourages students to tackle topics through an Indigenous lens. This year’s moot was held at the University of Victoria and included four law students from TRU — Wilson, Bailie Copeland, Rob Houle and Rosina Hamoni. In 2024, TRU Law is scheduled to host the event.
Moots are integral to preparing law students for litigation. Attending them, though, can create additional financial strain on students. The FIL Fund, flexible by design, aims to remove some of the strain.
“We wanted to offer practical, meaningful support, so a lot of time went into determining how best to thoughtfully structure the gift,” says Carroll.
“At Fulton, we embrace diversity, believing it encourages innovation and growth for us as individuals and as a team — we’re always looking for additional perspectives to make our team better. We’ve seen the benefits of this first-hand: our Indian Residential Schools Team was founded and led, for many years, by an Indigenous lawyer. Having access to that perspective was invaluable. Recruiting, supporting and retaining Indigenous law students and having them become part of the legal profession will promote and enhance the impact of their critical perspectives in our legal community and help us all move forward along the path of reconciliation.”
To find out more information on supporting the Future Indigenous Lawyers initiative, contact Sarah Sandholm, director of development, Faculty of Law at firstname.lastname@example.org.