Lakehead University law school welcomes new, non-Indigenous dean

Lakehead University has a new dean of law.

More than a year after the Thunder Bay school’s previous law dean stepped down alleging systemic racism, Lakehead has named Jula Hughes as the new person to head its Bora Laskin Faculty of Law.

Hughes, who joins Lakehead from the University of New Brunswick, fills the void left by Angelique EagleWoman following EagleWoman’s resignation in April 2018.

EagleWoman was the first Indigenous academic to lead a Canadian law school. But in that role she faced systemic racism, she alleged, and has since filed a lawsuit against the university for racial discrimination and constructive dismissal. She’s seeking $2.67 million in damages.

Lakehead’s law school opened in 2013 and made Indigenous law its core focus.

EagleWoman led the department from 2016 to 2018.

The university they appointed a non-Indigenous interim dean, retired judge Patrick Smith; the decision was criticized by local First Nations groups.

In an interview with APTN News Hughes said she is up to the task of leading the faculty.

“We’re facing the same issues over and over again,” she said. “We’re facing the issue of inadequate recognition of Aboriginal legal tradition. We’re facing students still coming out of law school not knowing very much about Aboriginal people — they don’t know very much about Indigenous law, Aboriginal law.”

But some faculty at Lakehead say the school needs an Indigenous dean.

Dennis McPherson holds a law degree and says he’s applied for the job twice.

A longtime professor in Lakehead’s Indigenous Learning Department, McPherson says he is disappointed but not surprised the university hired a non-Indigenous law dean.

“It comes back to lived experience,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be me, it can be somebody else. But what an Indigenous person would bring into it is a different perspective.”

Senator Murray Sinclair, on the other hand, offered his support to Luges in a statement.

The former judge and Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair said Hughes brings a “wealth of legal and academic experience” to the job.

Hughes says hiring Indigenous faulty members is high on her list of priorities.

“Making sure that this is a good environment for students to learn and a good environment for faculty to work is important to just concentrate on,” she said.

“I think a lot of the expertise on Indigenous law continues to reside in the community much more than the academic environment.”

She said she understands the skepticism and is up for the task.

“I think it’s going to be for the community to decide whether this was something that worked for them or not,” she said. “I think the jury will have to be out on that for a little while, we’ll just have to see.”

Video Journalist / Thunder Bay

Willow is an Oji-Cree Anishinabe from Sandy Lake First Nation. Her background is in print journalism and she studied multimedia before entering broadcast news . She is passionate about the stories of the Anishinabe in northwestern Ontario, particularly in the remote north.