A recent issue of LawPro Magazine was devoted to considerations specific to working with Indigenous clients. This post introduces and summarizes Nora Rock’s article, “Providing high-quality service to indigenous clients,” available here.
The article provides introductory comments on how to offer high quality service to Indigenous clients and, while it focuses on individual capacities such as listening, communication, advocacy, and collaboration, it also contextualizes Indigenous client services a within a larger framework of Canadian-Indigenous relations. It incites responsibilities and opportunities for recognition and reconciliation that may extend beyond one’s established service experience.
Recognizing an Indigenous client, even if not disclosed, and being aware of any immediate assumptions about their identity or legal needs is the first step to effective service delivery. In Alberta, there are approximately 44 First Nations, as well as Metis, Inuit and non-status Peoples who live and often travel between the Treaty areas of 6, 7, and 8. Alberta is also unique for the eight Metis Settlements with their Metis Settlements Tribunal. All Indigenous groups have distinct histories that have resulted in specialized legal needs so it becomes essential to assess how qualified one is to meet these needs. There is extensive specialized legislation and procedures that apply to Indigenous people and issues, and, though it will depend on the area of law, some issues are best left to specialists.
The article explains “effective representation…requires an appropriate awareness of Indigenous experience to avoid re-victimizing clients…” Lawyer education on Indigenous experiences can enhance professional relationships and build trust between individuals and the justice system. This includes awareness of the history and legacy of colonial systems such as the Indian Residential Schools as well as Aboriginal treaty and Indigenous rights such as those articulated through the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
As in all legal practice, effective lawyers avoid making assumptions about a best course of action. They determine a client’s needs and educate on both substantive and procedural law as well as the range of possible remedies. The most important skill when working with Indigenous clients is to listen “with bigger ears” and ensure that they become informed decision-makers in their legal process.
There is growing recognition for opportunities to enliven Indigenous legal traditions in Canadian law. The Canadian Bar Association calls for representation of all Canadian legal traditions when making judicial appointments, it affirms s. 35 promises, and calls for recognition and compliance with UNDRIP. Lawyers’ responsibilities to enhance legal plurality may require that lawyers anticipate differences between Canadian and Indigenous legal strategies and gain consent on his or her course of action. While the Alberta Law Society does not have the equivalent, the Law Society of Upper Canada has amended their Rules of Professional Conduct to recognize the right of Indigenous clients to use Indigenous languages.
Indigenous people occupy all ranges of socio-economic status, but, because Indigenous people experience low or no income at significantly higher rates than non-Indigenous, it is likely that poverty law practitioners in Alberta will meet and represent Indigenous clients. Lawyers who assume this responsibility can play a role in the larger process of reconciliation. This special opportunity can help clients exercise their rights, support family and community self-determination, and contribute to a more dynamic and representative legal system.