“Pure synchronicity” is the phrase Louise Mandell uses to describe the process by which she arrived at UBC for law school. Teaching certificate, education degree and some traveling under her belt, she says, “I had no clue what I was going to do. So I applied randomly to the London School of Economics, Simon Fraser University’s grad program in communications, UBC law school … and UBC’s [acceptance] came in first. Cosmic lottery.”
It was the 1970s, and the ’60s had finally found their way to the law school. Peace, love, politics and social justice coloured the academic landscape, and the Vietnam War was in full and sickening swing.
“We helped out the anti-war movement,” Mandell says of her fellow law students, “and I was part of a group that assisted draft dodgers.”
Mandell’s experience with UBC Law may just be proof that the cosmos is not random after all. “From the very first day, I felt that I was in the right place,” she says. “My particular talents fit with the methodology, and the ways in which I wanted to serve the world were all capable of being done within the framework of the law.”
Mandell grew up in Toronto in a middle-class family, in the shadow of the Holocaust. “As a Jewish person, I was overwhelmed as a child by the inhumanity that had been [committed against] the Jewish people,” she remembers. “I felt very strongly about that evil, and I always found myself on the side of trying to make things better. As I was growing up, I always seemed to be defending somebody or challenging authority.”
Law school in the ’70s was tailor-made for the passionate young advocate. “It was a time of real intellectual and social growth in my life,” Mandell recalls. “It was also a time in the law school’s history when they were prepared to do a bit of experimentation. Classes were led by “a cluster of very intelligent, radical-thinking professors” and students extended themselves beyond the classroom to establish a women’s legal clinic and organize a speakers’ series. Mandell speaks of her enduring relationship with Professor Michael Jackson, who taught her Aboriginal law and criminal law, and who has been part of her legal team on every case she has taken to the Supreme Court of Canada: “He is still my teacher.” She adds, “It was a time for me of making great friends, and engaging in great debates, and shooting for the moon. It didn’t seem like there was anything we couldn’t do!”
It seems she was right. Working exclusively in the area of Aboriginal and treaty rights since 1977, Mandell has specialized in Aboriginal-Crown relations, providing legal options, presenting claims to Government and negotiating settlements on behalf of Aboriginal people in Canada. A partner with Mandell Pinder, she has also been involved in a large number of court cases asserting Aboriginal rights to hunt and fish (Regina v. Bartleman and Regina v. Sparrow); establishing the Crown’s fiduciary relationship with First Nations (Guerin v. The Queen); asserting Gitksan and Wet’suwet’en rights of ownership and jurisdiction over their territory (Delgamuukw v. The Queen); and others whereby common law rights of Aboriginal peoples have become firmly ensconced in Canadian law, and the government’s duty to consult and accommodate has been made explicit.
Mandell’s work with Aboriginals began with a late-night phone call and a speeding ticket. Summoned to 222 Main Street to help a friend, she was then directed across the street, where at that moment Grand Chief George Manuel was defending a speeding ticket. “I didn’t know anything about Aboriginal rights but I knew a lot about speeding tickets,” Mandell laughs. “The law firm I was working for at the time represented an automobile association that gave a free defense of speeding tickets as part of the membership package. So I went across and met him and … not only had his ticket thrown out, but all the tickets like that in the Province as well, because there was a defect in how they wrote it. When I won, he said, ‘If you can do this for speeding tickets, maybe you can do it for Aboriginal rights.’”
It was a big leap of faith, but such leaps have characterized Mandell’s career. “You follow your passion,” says Mandell, by way of explanation of the synchronicity, “and somehow you get taken care of along the way.”
Written by Diane Haynes and originally published in the UBC Law Alumni Magazine, Fall 2005.
For more, listen to the Allard Law History Project Interview with Louise Mandell.