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Lakehead’s interim law dean departs after three months; third dean to leave since Bora Laskin Law School started

Wednesday, September 12, 2018 @ 5:29 PM | By Cristin Schmitz

Ontario Superior Court Justice Patrick Smith, Lakehead University’s new interim law dean, is leaving, barely three months after taking on the important post last June, The Lawyer’s Daily has learned.

Both the university, and the judge, were close-mouthed when asked why the judge is abruptly departing, effective Sept. 14, leaving the northern university’s fledgling Bora Laskin Faculty of Law without a legal and academic leader as it starts a new school year and continues its search for a permanent law dean.

Patrick Smith

Justice Patrick Smith

The law deanship has been a revolving door since the school’s inception five years ago — with three respected jurists departing for pastures anew.

Founding dean and author, Lee Stuesser, left in 2015, without the university saying why. His successor, Canada’s first Indigenous law dean, Angelique EagleWoman, left last April, complaining of systemic discrimination, tokenism and lack of support from the university’s administration.

Now Justice Smith, a Thunder Bay resident and senior judge with expertise in Indigenous law, is going. “We were recently informed that Justice Patrick Smith will be returning to the Superior Court of Justice to resume his responsibilities on the bench after the end of this week,” Lakehead official Brandon Walker confirmed.

“We have been very pleased with everything Justice Smith has achieved during the time he was with us,” Walker added by e-mail. “The program delivery and day-to-day operations are well in hand for the current academic year. For the immediate future, provost and vice-president (academic) David Barnett will assume the responsibilities of interim dean of the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law. He will receive support from the Faculty of Law’s operations adviser, Scott McCormack.”

When the university announced the appointment of Justice Smith — who was granted a special leave of absence from the bench from the chief justice of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice because of the importance of his temporary task — Lakehead University said his role would be to provide “leadership and continuity of programs and services at this critical time” as the university seeks a permanent law dean.

“The search for our next dean continues as planned,” Walker said. “Regarding next steps to appoint an interim dean, Lakehead will consult with a number of groups, including the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law’s Aboriginal advisory committee and Indigenous leaders.”

Eugene Meehan

Eugene Meehan

The latest departure from the law faculty has lifted eyebrows within the bar.

“Three deans in less than five years makes Italian politics look downright quotidian,” commented Eugene Meehan, a former University of Ottawa law professor and litigator with Ottawa’s Supreme Advocacy.

Meehan noted that law faculties are unique. “Faculties of law are not faculties of arts or science,” he remarked. “They're neither academic apples nor pedagogic prunes, but sui generis — maybe the central administration doesn’t get the Latin?”

EagleWoman came to Lakehead from the U.S. in 2016, inspired by the school’s mandate to embrace Aboriginal and Indigenous law. She told The Lawyer’s Daily last May, after her resignation, that “I met with a lot of resistance and over time I viewed that as systemic racism. I found that my opinions and proposals and strategies were often devalued or pushed aside by senior administration. I also felt that internally there was resistance to my leadership. … Not only was I trying to do all the work in administration as the dean, but I also had to step in and teach Indigenous courses for the first year and second year students. And it just came to the point of pure mental, physical and emotional exhaustion. I knew that I had to exit that situation.”

Angelique EagleWoman

Angelique EagleWoman

She also said she hoped that Lakehead would use her departure as an opportunity to engage with Indigenous communities and organizations to realize the “promise of the Faculty of Law’s unique mandates, consistent with the principle of reconciliation” as called for by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report.

When Justice Smith was appointed to temporarily fill EagleWoman’s shoes, the university said in a statement “the success of our students is our priority. The appointment of Justice Patrick Smith, whose judicial career includes significant experience in civil and criminal jury trials, family matters and many cases involving First Nations, allows us to continue our university’s commitment to the ongoing evolution and success of our Faculty of Law and its three core pillars.”

The three mandates of the law school, which integrates practical learning into its academic program, are Aboriginal and Indigenous Law; Natural Resources and Environmental Law; and Sole/Small Town Practice with the Integrated Practice Curriculum.