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Meet Kanesatake’s newest lawyer

Brandon Bonspiel graduated from law school, and wants fellow Kanehsata’kehró:non to know they can do it too. Courtesy Brandon Bonspiel

Kanehsata’kehró:non Brandon Bonspiel always loved reading – but he didn’t anticipate just how many pages he’d have to work through each week when he first embarked on his law degree at McGill University’s Faculty of Law.

“You think, ‘Oh my god, I need to be reading all the time. I need to read every word of every page of everything,’” he said. “But the more you read the more you understand the words, and the easier and the better it gets. Eventually you’re reading and you realize, ‘Oh, I understand it.’ It’s like learning a new language.”

After three years at McGill, Bonspiel finally crossed the stage to accept his diploma, at a graduation ceremony held at the Bell Centre. 

“It felt amazing,” he said. “When I got on the stage, I just took a few seconds to look around, it was just surreal.”

For Bonspiel, getting to the finish line wasn’t always easy. The first year of law school was hard, and a big change of pace from his undergraduate degree in political science, which he obtained from Concordia University.

“Nothing really prepares you for law school, everybody has to adjust. Everybody feels like they don’t belong, because everybody thinks everyone else around them is amazing,” he said. “It was tough to adapt in the first year because I had that imposter syndrome. I wasn’t making personal connections to my classmates and professors.”

That all changed for Bonspiel in the summer after his first year, when he secured an internship at the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne (MCA) justice department.

“I was in a Mohawk community with my people and making those personal connections. People were happy to see me not because of the work that I did but because of who I was,” he said. “It was a turning point for me, and it became less of a struggle.”

From there, Bonspiel flourished. He became vocal in class and developed friendships, particularly with other Indigenous students in his program. It wasn’t long before the imposter syndrome faded away, and he started feeling like he belonged at the school.

“I created a community there,” he said. “And it just keeps growing and growing.”

It wasn’t just the in-school community that helped throughout the degree, Bonspiel said. Support at home was just as important, and his family showed up for him constantly – including at his graduation ceremony.

“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” said Bonspiel’s father, Robert Bonspiel. “It chokes you up, seeing the Haudenosaunee flag on stage and my son representing everything that the flag holds dear. I’m very, very proud of him.”

For Robert, it was always important to show his son that he supported him, especially during the more difficult parts of law school. 

“I was there for him whenever he needed to talk. It didn’t matter what the time was, if it was night, we were there to let him realize that while he’s achieving new heights, he’s still tethered to us, his family,” he said. “Even if it was something as simple as a silly text message to get him to smile, we just wanted him to realize we’re still here, we’re not that far away. We’re here for him, all of the time.”

Robert said that his advice for parents of kids with big academic dreams is simple: just be present.

“Be their biggest fan, be the one in the background that’s screaming ‘You can do this,’ when everyone else is screaming ‘You can’t.’”

With his law degree in hand, Brandon now plans to join Fasken Law, one of the largest law firms in Montreal. He’ll be completing a six-month internship that could lead to future employment at the firm.

“I saw the work that they were doing, which was super interesting and stimulating,” he said. “They’re people first, and I wanted to be a part of that. They have a community.”

Before starting at Fasken, Brandon has one last challenge under his belt: completing his training at Bar School, which starts this month. Though he knows it can be stressful for young people considering a career in law to hear just how long the journey can be, he encourages all Kanehsata’kehró:non to believe in themselves if they choose to embark on a law degree.

“Law school is full of human beings, and human beings are not perfect, so don’t be too hard on yourself,” he said. “Law school is what you make of it, and meeting people is everything.”

evedcable@gmail.com

This article was originally published in print on June 7, in issue 33.23 of The Eastern Door.

Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.

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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.