“I broke a cycle,” said Kanehsata’kehró:non Stacey Pepin, standing in front of the over 125-year old New Chancellor Day Hall, part of McGill University’s Faculty of Law. “For some of us or for all of us, we’re breaking a cycle. Whether we think we’re making a change or an impact, we are making a change and an impact – whether we see it or not.”
Pepin is one of five Kanien’kehá:ka students currently completing a law degree at McGill University, along with fellow Kanehsata’kehró:non Brandon Bonspiel and Kahnawa’kehró:non Taylor Goodleaf, Emily Jocks, and Brandon Montour. Sitting in the sunshine with their sunglasses on, you’d be forgiven if you thought a squad of local celebrities had rolled up to law school.
“It was quite a change to come here, I’m still kind of in shock that I did this,” said Goodleaf, who started at McGill Law last year after previously completing an undergraduate and master’s degree. “It was a big step. McGill has done a good job of being pretty diverse and picking a lot of different people from not only different places, but different ages, different backgrounds. I’m constantly learning from other people just based on their experiences.”
For the five Mohawks at McGill, entering a settler institution was a big choice. McGill has come under fire for its historic treatment of Indigenous students and communities, with the school most recently embroiled in a lengthy legal battle with the Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers) about excavation plans on a nearby potential unmarked burial site.
“I’m still hesitant,” said Goodleaf. “I don’t fully trust McGill.”
Bonspiel agreed, noting that it’s a difficult decision to attend an institution that has harmed his community in the past. For him, studying law at McGill doesn’t have to be at odds with his Onkwehón:we identity, however.
“If I can get the chance to better myself and better my community, I’ll take that chance. But there are some certain values that I’ll definitely not give up,” said Bonspiel. “I know in the past, if this was 1923 and not 2023, a lot of our values couldn’t be expressed or held here. But right now, I’m able to be myself in this faculty, even though I don’t trust it 100 percent.”
Bonspiel sees his studies as a way in which he can enact meaningful change in his community and beyond.
“If I can use this institution to get to the next step, if I can have an impact, then I’m all here for it,” he said.
The past few years especially have seen some much-needed changes within the school, the group said.
“I was the first cohort to have mandatory training in Indigenous legal traditions,” explained Montour, who started at McGill Law in 2020 and is due to graduate in two weeks. The mandatory program started in response to Call to Action 28 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission final report. Since then, Montour said there’s been some important changes to Indigenous life at McGill Law, both from fellow students and from faculty.
“We have a vibrant Indigenous Law Association – this year we raised $10,000 for Native Montreal, and last year we raised $15,000 for the Indian Residential School Survivors Society,” said Montour. He noted that the university is also planning an Indigenous space within the New Chancellor Day Hall, where elders can attend and special gatherings can take place with Indigenous students.
“I think that’s really important,” said Montour. “I’m looking forward to coming back as a graduate and seeing what else the faculty is doing to support Indigenous students.”
It’s no secret that completing a law degree is an immense challenge. For all of the Kanien’kehá:ka students at McGill Law, support systems both within and outside of the university have been crucial to weathering the journey.
“I think that it’s a lot about your attitude, and I would also say grounding yourself in activities that nourish you is really, really important and sustaining,” said Jocks. “I think that’s how I’ve managed to get through so far. Going home is important. Spending time with my family, going outside, all of those things are important for well-being, but they also help your perspective as a student. You don’t want to live in a bubble of law school.”
Jocks and Bonspiel recalled one group project where they both had similar frustrations and concerns with their work. Being able to debrief with one another and ask for support made everything easier.
“It was fun to go into the meetings knowing we were going to have a good time,” he said, noting that connections between Indigenous students create a strong sense of solidarity. “We’re just us five here, but this community is much bigger than just five Mohawks.”
Though law school can be difficult, Goodleaf echoed her peers’ sentiments, saying community is what has helped her stay grounded.
“I feel like law school is like driving in a snowstorm. You just gotta keep going, because it’s safer,” she said.
“The first semester can feel really isolating. I didn’t have any relationship with any of these four people before getting here. We’ve made a little community,” she said. “I’ve made so many friends from different cultures and backgrounds, I’m quite shocked at how social my life has been. It’s really like we lean on each other – because it is really hard. It’s easier to support each other.”
One of those faculty members providing a sense of community and support is professor Aaron Mills, who is Anishinaabe from Couchiching First Nation. Mills is an expert in Anishinaabe law.
“I was trained by my grandmother and a number of other elders from Treaty Three in southern Manitoba, and I’ve been finding ways to bring that into the curriculum here. There’s a large movement of Indigenous folks bringing their Peoples’ law into Canadian law schools,” he said.
“We want everyone to understand that to really learn Indigenous law you have to go into our communities. You have to learn the stories. Not all, but most of the elders I work with would also feel pretty strongly that you need to learn a language.”
For those considering pursuing law school, Bonspiel says it’s no easy feat – and that’s exactly why you should go for it.
“It’s going to be hard. Life is hard! Law school is hard! Everything is hard! When the work is difficult, and you can’t find the motivation to do it, it’s just the people that will make you able to do it,” he said. “Be curious. Surround yourself with good people. If you leave your ego at the door, you’re going to learn things you never thought you would’ve learned.”
The five Kanien’kehá:ka at McGill Law want community members of any age who might be considering law school to feel free to connect with the group.“I would encourage any students who are reading this right now to reach out to one of us five and ask us any questions you have,” said Montour. “I came here not knowing anything, and feeling like I don’t belong here. Now I belong, and I want to continue being here. It just shows that anyone can do it.”