Seeing the people behind the justice system
“Lawyers are people too. They, and all legal professionals, have specific roles to play in society and in the justice system.” That’s what Thomas Milne helped a group of grade 7 and 8 students to understand.
Thomas is an associate at Nahwegahbow Corbiere Genoodmagejig Barristers & Solicitors. He is also Dare to Dream’s volunteer Program Coordinator for Mnjikaning Kendaaswin Elementary School in Rama, Ontario.
A program of Level, Dare to Dream provides justice education and outreach for First Nation, Métis, and Inuit youth. Through collaborations with Indigenous leaders, the legal community, and nonprofit organizations, Dare to Dream helps youth expand their understanding of the justice system and legal professions, develop critical thinking and leadership skills, and believe in their own capacity to succeed.
Dare to Dream started in Toronto in 2012 with 25 students and 10 volunteers. Today, it’s delivered in nine urban and on-reserve schools in three provinces and has approximately 250 students and 90 legal and student volunteers. The Law Foundation of Ontario has provided funding to Dare to Dream since 2014.
Fellow lawyers as well as paralegals, police officers, social service workers, and Elders, helped Thomas lead the students through case scenarios, a mock sentencing circle, and a mock trial. There was also an impromptu field trip and an in-class visitor that were very special for the youth and grownups alike.
The Federal Court judge, the Honourable Justice Leonard S. Mandamin was in Rama First Nation to receive Elder testimony for a court case over which he was presiding. The students got to observe Justice Mandamin receive Elder testimony. Afterward, Justice Mandamin introduced all the lawyers and court staff involved in the hearing and he held a question and answer session in the courtroom with the students, and again with them later in their classroom.
“Meeting Justice Mandamin was a very special moment,” Thomas said. “He is Anishnawbe and knows Anishnaabemowin so he explained several Indigenous legal concepts to the students in Anishnaabemowin. He held a terrific presentation about practicing law and drew a bit of a crowd at the school.”
Coincidentally, Thomas and Justice Mandamin are both from Manitoulin Island (Mnidoo Mnising). Thomas grew up in Little Current (Webejiwong in Anishnaabemowin) and Justice Mandamin is from Wikwemikong, however both are members of Wikwemikong. Thomas and Justice Mandamin could relate to the students, but more importantly, the students could relate to them.
“One of the students wants to go to law school now,” Thomas said. “I think the kids always understood this could be a career choice but I think as you start growing up, you start seeing the world a little differently; you start seeing limitations and barriers. I hope that, with the experience we gave them, they’re able to break those down. The students could see the volunteers were once in their position, even the judge and now he’s working in one of the top courts in Canada.”
The Law Foundation of Ontario makes grants to a wide range of organizations and initiatives. The majority of the activities funded fit within one, or more, of these four broad areas:
- Public legal education and information to the public to help them address their legal problems
- Justice education to increase people’s, particularly youth’s, knowledge of their legal rights and the justice system
- Enabling legal professionals and students to donate their time and expertise to provide direct pro bono services to the public
- Building the capacity of the nonprofit justice sector to understand people’s legal needs and how to best address and serve them