Darwin Hanna is one of the named partners of Aboriginal law firm Callison & Hanna, a firm specializing in Aboriginal law that was founded in 1996 by Hanna and his wife, Cynthia Callison. For Hanna, the journey to starting his own law firm began with his undergraduate studies in criminology. Hanna was attracted to criminology in part because he saw the potential for a fulfilling career, and enrolled in a joint-degree criminology program with Douglas College and Simon Fraser University (SFU) upon graduating from high school in Maple Ridge.
In 1991, while at SFU, Hanna interned with the Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council for eight months. In this capacity, he had the opportunity to move up to Lytton, B.C., where his family is from, and reconnect with the community.
Hanna had always considered a career in law, and law was a natural progression from criminology studies, since Hanna already had an opportunity to read cases and learn about the Canadian justice system from a criminal law perspective. After graduating from SFU, Hanna applied to various law schools. He ultimately chose to attend the University of British Columbia (UBC) because he was offered direct admission for the fall of 1992 without having to complete the Program of Legal Studies for Native People offered by the University of Saskatchewan’s Native Law Centre.
Hanna notes that the highlight of his law school experience was having the opportunity to meet other students from various walks of life. Indeed, Hanna met Callison in first-year law, having been part of the same small group.
When Hanna was in first-year, there was not an Aboriginal law component to any of his classes, save for one lecture in property law. He recalls that Professor Dennis Pavlich had invited the Aboriginal students in his class to share their perspectives on Aboriginal title for that particular class.
“R v Sparrow had just been handed down two years ago, and there was a lot of First Nations activism. The early cases touching on Aboriginal title and rights were just developing, and the curriculum had not yet matured. Certainly there were more opportunities to learn about Aboriginal law in upper-year.”
Hanna was among the first class of students to participate in the UBC First Nations Legal Clinic, which was founded in 1995.
“The Clinic provided us with exposure to Aboriginal people who needed services in criminal court, or assistance with tenancy or status application issues. We provided general advocacy work for Aboriginal peoples who could not afford a lawyer. As law students, we saw how we could help individuals and meet their needs.”
When Hanna started law school, the University had been in the middle of plans to build the First Nations House of Learning Longhouse. In 1993, the Longhouse was unveiled, and Hanna recalls being a part of numerous social events with First Nations students from other faculties and programs hosted at the Longhouse. Hanna was also part of a group that organized weekly Nlha7kapmx language lessons at the Longhouse with an elder from the community.
Upon graduation in 1995, Hanna articled with a small firm in North Vancouver. As soon as Hanna was called to the bar, he opened his own law firm with his wife. Some of the clients that he assisted during his articles followed Hanna to his firm, Callison & Hanna, and have remained his clients for the past twenty years.
Hanna had always known that he wanted to provide legal representation for Aboriginal people and his community, but he had not always known what area of law he wanted to practice. Today, he finds himself with a wide and varied practice providing legal services to aboriginal organizations.
“Law is so pervasive and affects people in such a wide breadth. I use all the legal tools I have learned to provide services to the community and individuals,” explains Hanna. “I practice ‘Aboriginal law’, but this really means that I practice in a number of areas, such as corporate, municipal and environmental law. It took me a few years to figure out the areas of law I wanted to focus upon, but I still practice a wide breadth of law to this day.”
For Hanna, Aboriginal law is about providing legal services to the community and its members. Hanna describes each interaction of the law with Aboriginal peoples as being unique, given the special relationship between section 35 of the .
Callison & Hanna has now grown to a firm that houses seven lawyers and that has articled five of Aboriginal law students. Hanna himself travels frequently to Yellowknife as part of his practice to provide services to an Aboriginal client up north in respect their land and resource negotiations. In 2014, was the recipient of the Premier’s Award (GNWT) for Collaboration for participation on the Wildlife Act Working Group. In 2015, he was counsel to the case of Akisq’nuk First Nations v Canada before the Specific Claims Tribunal, which concerns the fiduciary duty of the federal government in relation to 3000 acres of land that was not set aside a reserve the First Nation. The decision remains to be handed down.
Callison & Hanna was the recipient of the Special Contribution Award of the Aboriginal Lawyers Forum, Canadian Bar Association, for recognition of the firm’s contribution to addressing the various issues facing Aboriginal law students and lawyers, including the retention of Aboriginal people in the legal profession and the support and enhancement of the stature and influence of Aboriginal people in the legal profession.
“The main reason why I wanted to be a lawyer was because I saw a duty to transfer resources, which we see as belonging to us, to communities of Aboriginal nations. We continue to help people who have gone before us, those who have tried to resolve various issues since Contact. Although things are improving, it is disheartening when the communities still need so much more in terms of support for education and access to land and resources.”
Over the years, Hanna has noticed changes with some of his Aboriginal clients. When Hanna first started working with these clients, many were small governing organizations that did not have a lot of staff or resources, but he has observed growth over the years. Now, a lot of his clients operate going-concern businesses or are parties to multi-million dollar transactions and have strong self-governance tools.
In 2001, Hanna started teaching various Aboriginal law courses at UBC as an adjunct professor, such as Indigenous Legal Perspectives and First Nations and Economic Development. Additionally, Hanna has presented at Canadian Bar Association Continuing Legal Education courses on topics relevant to First Nations peoples.
Hanna is an avid hockey player during his spare time. Even when in law school, Hanna played with the school hockey team, then known as the Law Sharks. Today, he plays hockey with the CBC Hockey Team, a group he has been part of for the past 15 years. He also enjoys travelling with his family, and boating in the summertime.