Focus On
Michelle Williams

‘Justice has not yet been achieved,’ says director of N.S. Indigenous Blacks & Mi’kmaq Initiative

Wednesday, February 19, 2020 @ 1:24 PM | By Donalee Moulton

The Indigenous Blacks & Mi’kmaq (IB&M) Initiative at the Schulich School of Law in Halifax has reached a new milestone. The landmark law school program has now completed its 30th year in operation.

While much has changed in the past three decades, there has been one constant for the IB&M Initiative: its reason for being. The program was established in 1989 to increase representation of Indigenous Blacks and Mi'kmaq in the legal profession in order to reduce discrimination. That remains the overarching goal 30 years later.

Michelle Williams, director of the Indigenous Blacks & Mi’kmaq Initiative

Specifically, noted Michelle Williams, director of the Indigenous Blacks & Mi’kmaq Initiative, “the mandate of the IB&M Initiative is to reduce structural and systemic discrimination by increasing the representation of Mi’kmaw and Indigenous Black lawyers and facilitating collaborative change.”

The program’s reach is wide. It encompasses community legal outreach and recruiting, and supports research in the areas of Aboriginal and Indigenous law and African Nova Scotian law. As well, the IB&M Initiative strives to reduce discrimination by addressing the legal and related needs of African Nova Scotians and Mi’kmaq, both on and off reserve.

For the students enrolled in the program, there are a range of financial and academic supports based on need. There is also career placement assistance. In addition, noted Williams, “having a cohort of students and alumni mentors creates an extended family that helps to make the law school experience more inviting and comfortable — and creates links to career opportunities.”

Like all law students, those in the program tackle the rigours of law school. “Students who are recruited through the IB&M Initiative join the regular first year class, write the same exams, complete the same work and earn the same juris doctor degree as do all other students at the Schulich School of Law,” said Williams.

The initiative, which currently accepts 12 students a year for a total of 36 students across all three years of law school, has an important impact on the justice system. “The contribution of our students and graduates to legal education and the legal profession directly increases access to justice,” said Williams.

More work is needed, said Williams. “Justice has not yet been achieved. There is an ongoing need to facilitate the inclusion of Mi’kmaw and African Nova Scotian — and other Indigenous and Black lawyers — as leaders in our profession and our country.”

Students and graduates are catalysts for change who directly assist their communities as well as the legal profession across Canada, she noted. Among the 200 alumni are distinguished members of the profession including Justice John Bodurtha, the first black judge to be appointed to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia in its 250-year history.

The IB&M Initiative has its roots in the efforts of African Nova Scotian communities and Mi'kmaq First Nations to obtain access to legal education and the legal profession and to address racism in the justice system, Williams noted.

These efforts, she added, were the catalyst for Dalhousie University’s study Breaking Barriers: Report of the Task Force on Access for Black and Native People. In 1989, Dalhousie established a task force to investigate the university’s role in educating Indigenous and Black students in the region. Breaking Barriers made it clear change was imperative. On the first page, the task force stated, “[W]e have been forced to conclude that racism is a problem in the Nova Scotia education system. Few of us were aware of the number and height of the barriers which face Indigenous, black and Micmac students who want to pursue higher education in Nova Scotia.”

The same year the Dalhousie task force delivered its findings, the Royal Commission on the Donald Marshall, Jr. Prosecution, the first wrongful conviction commission in the country’s history, released its 41-page report. Among the recommendations: that the new IB&M Initiative “receive the financial support of the Governments of Canada and Nova Scotia, and the Nova Scotia Bar.”