Education and Law Among Oldest UBC Aboriginal Programs

Magnolia Unka (L) and Sita-Rani MacMillan will help to counteract a national shortage in First Nations lawyers and educators - photo by Martin Dee
Magnolia Unka (L) and Sita-Rani MacMillan will help to counteract a national shortage in First Nations lawyers and educators – photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 12 | Dec. 6, 2007

By Basil Waugh

Magnolia Unka and Sita-Rani MacMillan want to improve the lives of Aboriginal people in Canada: they’re just going about it in different ways. One plans to use the court room, the other, the classroom.

One of over 500 Aboriginal students at UBC, Unka is studying First Nations Legal Studies in the Faculty of Law, including aboriginal law, litigation and self-government. She can also gain first-hand legal experience representing Aboriginal clients at UBC’s First Nations Legal Clinic on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

“Growing up, I was always aware of the injustices that Native people faced within the legal system,” says Unka, a member of the Northwest Territories’ Dene First Nation. “I entered law to address these injustices and improve the system from within.”

MacMillan is training to teach public, band and independent school through the UBC Faculty of Education’s Native Indian Teacher Education Program (NITEP). Currently doing a practicum at Vancouver’s Nootka Elementary School, MacMillan is teaching 28 children social studies, weaving Aboriginal history and perspectives into her lessons.

“I would like to work as an elementary school teacher,” says MacMillan, a member of Saskatchewan’s Sakimay First Nation. “We begin teaching classes in our first year so we are really comfortable and ready to teach full-time in the classroom by our final year.”

As two of B.C.’s longest-running Aboriginal education initiatives, these programs are helping to address a national shortage in Aboriginal lawyers and educators. Since it was established in 1974, NITEP has educated more than 330 Aboriginal teachers, while the law program, founded in the mid-’80s, has graduated more than 200 Aboriginal lawyers.

Over the past three decades, UBC has introduced a wide variety of Aboriginal academic programs, research projects, student services and community outreach projects. These include initiatives in Arts, Education, Forestry, Land and Food Systems, Law, Medicine, Science, and the Sauder School of Business, plus more than 100 courses with an Aboriginal focus. UBC’s Trek 2010 vision statement pledges ongoing improvements to UBC’s accessibility to Aboriginal people and its ability to meet their educational needs.

Since retired Senator Leonard Marchand (Okanagan First Nation) graduated in 1958, UBC has educated generations of Aboriginal leaders, including B.C.’s new lieutenant-governor Stephen Point (Skowkale First Nation), retired judge and hereditary chief Alfred Scow (Kwicksutaineuk First Nation), Chief Kim Baird (Tsawwassen First Nation), Grand Chief Ed John (Tl’azt’en First Nation), the late Métis scholar and activist Howard Adams, and the late Frank Calder (Nisga’a First Nation), the first Status Indian elected to Canada’s Parliament.

When Unka and MacMillan want to connect with other Aboriginal students, staff and faculty at UBC, they visit the First Nations Longhouse. A recipient of the Governor-General’s award for architecture, the Longhouse serves as a “home away from home” where students can study and learn in a surrounding that reflects Aboriginal traditions and cultures.

“I am honoured every time I step foot in it,” says Unka of the Longhouse, which includes a Great Hall, Xwi7xwa Library, a computer lab, counselling, advising, and other student resources. It houses the UBC First Nations Student Association and a variety youth programs aimed at burgeoning Aboriginal leaders and scientists.

Inspired by a number of female Aboriginal lawyers, Unka says she is proud to be following their footsteps at UBC. “A Cherokee elder once said: ‘The battle for Indian children will be won in the classroom, not on the streets or on horses. The students of today are our warriors of tomorrow.’ To me, that really sums up the importance of Aboriginal students in university.”

“I have never doubted that NITEP was the right program for me,” says MacMillan. “It has helped guide me towards a very positive future. I just hope to give back as much as has been given to me.”

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