Brad Regehr’s (BA ’93) journey to become the first Indigenous president of the Canadian Bar Association (CBA) began while working a shift at the Turnkey Desk, at what was then called the Campus Centre.
Regehr, a history and religious studies student, saw Elijah Harper, a politician and Indigenous leader, help block the Meech Lake Accord in 1990. That same year, he watched Indigenous people blocking development on disputed lands near the town of Oka, Quebec.
So, when a friend stopped by the Turnkey Desk with a study manual for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) Regehr began to seriously think about the impact he could make as a lawyer. His own grandfather was a survivor of a residential school and he himself was adopted during the Sixties Scoop, a large-scale removal of Indigenous children from their homes in the 1960s.
“I see Indigenous people as resilient. They were attacked physically, culturally, sociologically and psychologically for decades. It was government policy to assimilate them or to get rid of them,” he says. “And it didn’t work. There’s a lot of damage done, but those cultures, those societies, are still here.”
Regehr, named CBA president in fall 2020, has dedicated more than two decades to working on Indigenous issues and has seen how the perseverance and resistance of Indigenous people is strengthening Canadian society.
Reconciliation in the legal profession
However, Regehr is calling for systemic change too: Indigenous peoples – First Nations, Métis and Inuit – are disproportionally represented in the criminal justice system. The CBA’s Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) implementation plan seeks to educate all lawyers about Indigenous issues, building cultural competence and addressing trauma.
For instance, a new CBA online program called The Path has been very popular, educating more than 1,700 lawyers. The CBA is also supporting two podcasts – one featuring Regehr focused on the TRC and another called The Trauma-Informed Lawyer.
Mentorship’s important role in building resilience
Regehr says mentorship is also critical. “I like to challenge senior members of the bar who are Indigenous to ‘act as that mentor, be that mentor,’” he says. “Mentoring opportunities are so important to finding future opportunities.”
For example, the British Columbia branch of the CBA has an Aboriginal Lawyers Forum. “I’m hoping that will gain more interest and become a cross-country phenomenon,” Regehr says. “We could see opportunities for people from other BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) communities as well.”
He’s also encouraged by the work of initiatives such as the Waterloo Indigenous Student Centre, of which he’s a proud supporter. “When I was at Waterloo, there was nothing for Indigenous students. You had to try and find each other so I’m really happy to see the support for students.”