Cynthia Callison is a member of the Crow Clan in the Tahltan Nation whose traditional territory is the Stikine River Watershed in northwestern British Columbia. Callison travels often with her family to Tahltan territory, an approximately 22-hour drive from Vancouver. “In my community, we are able to continue the practice of food fishing, hunting, and gathering. My father has ensured that we can survive on the land."
Growing up, Callison lived in a number of places in the Yukon and B.C., before settling in Vancouver to go to school. For Callison, the path from secondary to post-secondary education was not a straight and sequential one, but rather a meandering path with intertwining and overlapping milestones. For example, Callison worked full-time in property management with federal government departments while working towards a diploma in urban land economics at the University of British Columbia (UBC) Sauder School of Business.
It was her time at the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (“DFO”) that inspired Callison to enroll in law school. In 1990, R v Sparrow was decided by the Supreme Court of Canada, a historic case about Aboriginal rights under section 35 of the Canadian Constitution, 1982. Working for DFO, Callison observed firsthand how the government choose to implement the decision in their enforcement of fisheries regulation.
“The summer after Sparrow, the Department conducted more enforcement against First Nations food fishers than they had ever done before, and it was then that I decided I might be able to become an advocate for First Nations people by going to law school,” says Callison.
The only school that Callison applied to for law was the University of British Columbia (“UBC”). She was provided with conditional acceptance in 1992, upon the completion of a six-week course at the University of Saskatchewan Native Law Centre. Even at the Centre, Callison demonstrated an aptitude for legal studies, and was offered unsolicited spots at two other law schools. Such positive feedback provided Callison with a sense of confidence that continued throughout her legal education.
Callison recalls that, in her first year at UBC, there were approximately four Aboriginal students in each of the four small groups. She developed long-lasting friendships with her Aboriginal peers, and recalls forming study groups to more efficiently learn the material and to produce condensed annotated notes (“CANs”) from an Aboriginal perspective.
Also memorable for Callison was the first-year property law class, as it was the first time that Aboriginal title was included in the curriculum and the Aboriginal students in her property law class were asked to lecture on the topic of Aboriginal title.
“At that time, the materials on Aboriginal title in our class were published by the forestry association. Instead of relying on the materials, or lack thereof, we decided to share with the class our own experiences as Aboriginal peoples, and our First Nation’s views of Aboriginal title.”
Callison adds that the law has taken 20 years to encompass some of the views they articulated in that property law class. In addition, UBC has subsequently developed upper-year elective courses on Aboriginal issues, as well as included Aboriginal issues in mainstream courses. She notes that the current inclusion of Aboriginal issues in the law school will assist in the recognition and reconciliation of Aboriginal and Crown titles and rights in B.C.
“Of all the classes in law school, I found the Indigenous Legal Community Clinic to be the most practical,” adds Callison. “I was equipped with the skills needed to pass the bar, such as interviewing witnesses, conducting trials, and writing arguments.”
In 1995, Callison graduated from UBC Law and accepted the highest-paying articling position that she could find, even though it focused on civil litigation, because she had a family to support.
Once she was called to the bar in 1996, Callison immediately opened a law firm with her partner, Darwin Hanna, whom she met in her small group in first-year law. Their firm, Callison & Hanna, began very modestly in their townhouse and meeting space at a downtown legal clinic. Fast-forward 19 years, Callison & Hanna is now a dynamic firm with seven lawyers that has represented Aboriginal communities on a wide range of matters, with a focus on economic development and negotiated agreements, and settlement with government and industry. All of the lawyers at Callison & Hanna are UBC Law alumni, and the majority are Aboriginal people.
For both Callison and Hanna, their law firm is not just a business. Their clients are Aboriginal communities that they have formed long-term relationships with. Being a Tahltan citizen gives Callison a different perspective, an understanding of her clients’ challenges and an appreciation of their goals including the goal to be self-determining nations.
The legal community has recognized Callison’s expertise in Aboriginal law. Callison has spoken at many conferences and educational forums as well as authored several publications on Aboriginal law topics. She also taught a course on Indigenous People & International Law. In addition, Callison’s perspective on indigenous rights and the mining industry has been solicited on a number of occasions by national and international forums.
When asked about some of the changes that she has noticed in the legal profession, Callison responds: “There has been a change in how First Nations lawyers are perceived in terms of their competency. When I was a law student, there was a misconception that First Nations students were given concessions, and that somehow First Nations lawyers were less competent. I think that this sentiment has changed, and rightly so.”
As soon as Callison & Hanna had the ability to article students, they immediately hired Aboriginal law students, and have articled a number of Aboriginal students over the years. Needless to say, Callison & Hanna is deserving of the inaugural award from the Canadian Bar Association Aboriginal Lawyers Forum Contribution Award for recognition of dedication to Aboriginal people in legal profession.
Another significant difference that Callison has observed over the years is the effect of the recognition of Aboriginal title and rights by the courts to the First Nations communities that she works with. For instance, Callison has seen many of her clients become successful by participating in mainstream business to avoid or lessen social, cultural, and environmental impacts from land and resource development and to share in revenues with industry and government.
“We wanted to see our communities create their own destinies and to be self-determining, instead of being controlled by industry interests and government agendas,” explains Callison. “The goal is not necessarily the accumulation of wealth, but rather the ability to have more control over First Nations territories to continue our way-of-life and our distinct languages and cultures.”
For her fiftieth birthday, Callison celebrated by completing her master’s degree in constitutional law from Osgoode Hall Law School, and by visiting indigenous people in Peru to learn about their continuing cultural practices. Callison plans to facilitate on-going cultural exchanges and supports for indigenous peoples in the Americas who have a similar colonization experience as Aboriginal peoples of Canada. Callison also plans to continue her practice of facilitating dialogue and transforming relationships between Aboriginal communities, government, and industry in Canada to create a better future for everyone.