By Michael Jerch
Over the years, a few clients have asked me the following question. Why did you decide to work for First Nations, Michael? I guess they were curious, because I’m not an Indigenous person myself. So why then did I decide to go into this area of law?
I guess the answer rests in part with my upbringing. I grew up in Winnipeg as a child of a post-war, refugee, immigrant family, and perhaps this is why I have a tendency to root for the underdog.
When I went to university, I was an idealist and passionate about Indigenous rights law, environmental law, social movements, and advocacy. It was around this time that I also starting to learn about my own family history. At home with my family, I heard talk of refugee camps and labour camps. I listened to stories about how my family had been split up by war. I had aunts and uncles who were separated from their brothers and sisters, parents, and grandparents. With this knowledge, I developed a better understanding of my own childhood experiences, and I saw how the trauma and pain caused by war could be passed down inter-generationally.
After I graduated from business school, I moved to northern Manitoba, which became my home for the next several months. My first job was working for Keewatin Tribal Council. My co-worker, a Cree student from Fox Lake, and I would move from community-to-community, week-to-week. I recall our weekly ritual of packing up our food, getting on the plane, and showing up at the next band council office. We lived in a total of 11 communities that summer. Between my time spent at the Aboriginal student residence, going door-to-door in the communities, and my colleague educating me about Indigenous rights, I felt completely immersed.
Over time, I developed friendships and relationships with the people who I had met in northern Manitoba, and I moved back there the following year. During this period, I vividly remember being welcomed into homes to have dinner at the kitchen tables of so many generous Cree, Dene, and Metis people. I also recall attending many community meetings, where I heard the voices of many frustrated community members. Among other things, they talked about how Canada does not address the issues that would truly make a difference them.
My experiences in Indigenous communities in northern Manitoba have had a profound impact on my personal development and have left me with memories that I will not forget. I started law school in Toronto with these experiences fresh in my mind, learning the language of the law and listening to scholars discuss Indigenous self-determination. Much to my dismay, though, I also learned about the barriers that Canada puts in the way.
Coming from kitchen tables in Cree and Dene communities, downtown Toronto felt very foreign to me. It was hard for me to leave the warmth and familiarity of home in northern Manitoba for the sterility of the urban Toronto landscape. I found myself feeling homesick, and if it wasn’t for the friendship of some of my fellow students, who came from Indigenous communities, I may have returned to the North and dropped out of law school. To this day, I am still very grateful for the experiences I had in northern Manitoba, the families who welcomed me into their homes, and for the Indigenous friends I had in law school who kept me there.
After I had graduated from law school, I did not realize it, but my real education was about to begin. The time that I have spent working with Chiefs and Grand Chiefs over the last 20-plus years has been quite the educational experience. Working with Indigenous negotiators and leaders, I learned the importance of strong negotiations, developing strategies, and achieving results. I was also fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to take part in the gathering of traditional medicines, and I was given some teachings on how to hunt and skin wild game. During these years working with both leadership and elders, I also learned to appreciate the importance of humour in keeping positive working relationships. Through these experiences, I began to understand the importance of healthy families, spiritual beliefs, and staying strong in the face of adversity. Today, I understand that these were all important lessons, and I have humility and respect for these experiences.
There is a kindness and a strength in Indigenous people that resonates with me. I recall listening to the late Grand Chief Francis Flett and his Cree oratory in assembly. He had such spirit and intensity. He eloquently spoke of the rights of First Nations, refusing inequality and the barriers imposed by the Canadian government. As legal counsel for First Nations, I learned to look beyond the framework of the Western legal system, which put hurdles before my clients’ objectives. I believe that as legal counsel my role is to advocate for my clients. To do this meaningfully, I need to present my clients’ perspectives and work with them to develop unique solutions that are inclusive of their way of life and that acknowledge the significance of the land to them. In this way, it is my hope that Canadian laws can be modified, and Indigenous laws can be restored.
I have not forgotten where my journey started, sitting at kitchen tables with elders, learning to trap and skin wild food, and going door-to-door talking with people in remote northern Manitoba communities. Today, I am part of a law firm that I established to provide legal services to Indigenous individuals, organizations, and governments. Together, my colleagues and I have established a dynamic and professional environment, and we share a passion for working for Indigenous people and working towards the recognition of their Aboriginal and treaty rights. I look forward to continuing my work with the fabulous people who have joined Jerch Law and to further developing the partnerships with the First Nations communities that are at the heart of what we do.
ekosi and miigwetch