“As human beings, we are social animals and thrive in communities or ‘tribes’ as I like to call them. I found my ‘tribe’ in law school.” – Dawna Mueller, photographer, entrepreneur, activist, and member of the Allard School of Law class of 1993.
Dawna Lynn Mueller (McLean in law school) was born in Manitoba in 1960, but moved to Burnaby, British Columbia with her mother in 1963 after her father passed away. She attended the University of British Columbia where she obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science in 1989, followed by a Bachelor of Laws in 1993.
Growing up in a lower middle class family, Dawna didn’t anticipate that one day she would attend law school at UBC - in fact, law school wasn’t even on her radar. However, after years of being told she should consider a career in law due to her activist personality and also being a huge fan of the 80’s hit television show L.A. Law, Dawna embraced the idea and applied to law school. She received the good news that she was accepted to Allard School of Law while she was on a six month backpacking trip around the South Pacific and Asia. Dawna arrived with excitement and trepidation on her first day in September 1991. She recalls sitting in the main auditorium of the old law building amongst her first year classmates where Dean George F. Curtis was giving his inaugural speech to the incoming class. Dean Curtis welcomed the neophytes and instructed them to look around, succinctly stating that some of the connections made in this room would turn into life long friendships. While it was an overwhelming thought at the time, 25 years after her graduation, Dawna couldn’t agree more with Dean Curtis’ sentiment and is proud to acknowledge that some of her best friends are those made in law school so many years ago.
During her time at law school, Dawna participated in the UBC/UVic moot, a legal competition between the province’s law schools. With the support of coaches Professor Robert Diebolt and Professor Barry Slutsky, Dawna and her teammates succeeded to victory taking home the coveted Begbie Trophy for the 10th year in a row. Dawna was also a very active member of the law school community and sat on the Articling Committee, the Graduation Committee, and the Yearbook committee. Dawna fondly remembers the close connections she formed with her peers during law school, recalling how “three years spent with the same people in such an intense environment creates exceptionally strong bonds.”
As an alumna, Dawna has continued to remain actively involved in the law school community. She played an integral role, along with three other classmates, in organizing the 20-year reunion for the class of 1993. With 120 alumni attending, this was one of the most successful reunions at the Allard School of Law. Dawna also created an updated ‘Legal Who’, which was the school news magazine in 1993, using biographies, questionnaires, and current and former portrait photos of her classmates. Over 150 former students submitted details of their lives spanning the last 20 years. All participants received a CD copy of the Legal Who – 20 years Later’ at the reunion. The reunion committee also raised $30,000 to establish a class of 1993 memorial bursary in honour of their six classmates who had passed on since graduation. The Class of ’93 Bursary supports current Allard School of Law students with financial aid needed to obtain a legal education. As part of her philosophy of life, Dawna devotes much of her time to giving back to her community. She looks forward to the 30-year reunion in 2023, an event that she already foresees herself taking initiative in planning.
Dawna has led a unique and unconventional career trajectory since her graduation from law school in 1993. Following graduation, she clerked with the BC Supreme Court as part of her articling requirement. Upon the conclusion of her clerkship, Dawna moved to Paris to study French language, art history, and culture. She describes this time of her life as a turning point – after years of utilizing an academic mindset, this transition allowed her to tap into the creative side of her brain. While Dawna’s move to Paris was a significant milestone in her life, it also placed her at a crossroads. It was a time of reflection as to the career direction she wanted to go upon returning to Canada. Her time in Paris made her question whether she wanted to practice law in the traditional sense or even at all. After returning to Vancouver and completing her articles at the largest law firm in western Canada at the time, Dawna decided to transition her career away from law and towards an endeavor that allowed her to further explore her entrepreneurial side.
After leaving law, Dawna enrolled in a one year business program specifically designed for entrepreneurs wanting to start their own businesses at SFU’s downtown campus. This program enabled Dawna to create a business plan and find support at the early stages of her business growth. In 1996, Dawna started Objects of Desire Designs, a soft furnishings business that was inspired by the bedding and drapery she had made to decorate her tiny Parisian studio apartment. Within a few months of opening its doors, the business had expanded from her home office to a factory in Vancouver’s Gastown. Dawna wore many hats at the company, ranging from designing, marketing, administration and anything else that required her attention. While she recalls that there were not enough hours in the day to allow her to keep up with the growing success of the business, Dawna was thrilled by the opportunity to design the soft furnishings for culinary mogul Linda Meinhardt and her French Chateau Drouilles. Within two years after having opened her business, Dawna received an Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 1998 from the SFU business program, and was covered in magazines and newspapers all across the country including Chatelaine, Canadian House and Home, the Vancouver Sun and the Georgia Straight. Within five years, she was selling her bedding in retail stores across Canada. After six years of running Objects by Desire Designs, Dawna sold the business and moved to Switzerland for love, where she currently resides with her family. After her 18 year marriage ended in 2015, Dawna found herself at yet another crossroads in life and decided to turn a 30 year photography hobby into her profession. So at the mid-life age of 55, she decided to pursue her passion and enrolled in full time photography studies at Cap Fotoschule in Zurich.
In 2016, Dawna created Dawna Mueller Photography, specializing in landscape and conservation photography with a focus on alpine and polar regions. Through her many summers driving heavy equipment in Dawson City, Yukon, initially to finance university, then a six month backpacking trip and eventually to establish and grow Objects of Desire Designs, Dawna developed a strong bond with nature and love for the environment. While still in photography school, Dawna began photographing in the Swiss Alps where she witnessed both the beautiful landscapes and the devastating evidence left by the detrimental effects of climate change. Motivated to investigate further into the effects of climate change, she decided to go to the Arctic on an expedition with scientists and other photographers. In June and July 2017, Dawna traveled to Svalbard, where she saw further evidence of scarring moraines left behind by melting glaciers as well as one incident which left an indelible impression on her mind: a polar bear swimming for hours in search of ice. Saddened by what she saw and discovering that 2017 was a record high temperature in the Arctic, Dawna decided to go to the Antarctic with some of the same group of scientists to see what was occurring south of the equator. There she experienced more of the same – record high temperatures and a diverse range of species at risk. Dawna will be exhibiting the photos from these expeditions and her upcoming Greenland trip while speaking about the effects of climate change on these fragile ecosystems. Her Exhibition ‘Anthropcene – Vanishing Ice’ opens at Back Project Gallery in Vancouver on October 12, 2018 and then moves to Switzerland and Austria. Dawna hopes to use her photography and voice as a platform to bring these issues to the forefront of our cultural and political conscientiousness. She currently has two exhibitions in Switzerland showing her alpine photography. She also speaks at schools showing video and photography of her work to educate youth about global warming’s effects in these ecosystems, and will be presenting at an upcoming TEDx Talk on Vancouver Island in October 2018. Through these engagements, she hopes to use her voice to not only captivate the public with images depicting the effects of global warming, but also to provide individuals with strategies to reduce their own carbon footprints.
Dawna’s latest project is the creation of a foundation which combines art and science with a focus on climate change and its effects on the planet’s alpine and polar regions. The first Forum scheduled for January 2019, will be a four day event featuring lectures, photography exhibitions, workshops, fieldtrips to nearby glaciers, a youth program, documentary film screenings, fireside chats, and a gala dinner. Dawna intends for this to become an annual event, in which a combination of art and science is used to bring global awareness to this important topic.
While it is clear that Dawna did not follow a traditional career path in law after obtaining her law degree in 1993, she clearly applies the skills she acquired through her legal education to many aspects of her busy and productive life. This has ranged from using her legal background to manage her own personal real estate portfolio to utilizing her legal research skills to gain information under the Freedom of Information legislation in order to assist a photography colleague and scientist in gathering data for an upcoming book. Dawna is a passionate advocate for the planet and believes her legal education assisted her in creating the life she now lives by giving her the tools of analytic reasoning along with advanced research skills to problem solve, to set and achieve goals and to dream. Dawna considers her time at law school and the legal education she acquired as one of the valuable highlights of her life.
When asked to give a piece of advice to current law school students, Dawna doesn’t miss a beat and suggests that current law students, and everyone for that matter, take some time to strongly consider what their passion in life is, because “when our passion burns brighter than our fear, there are no limits.”
Dawna Lynn Mueller (formerly McLean) was interviewed for the Allard School of Law History Project in July 2018. For more on her time at the Allard School of Law and her experiences as a business-owner and conservation and landscape photographer, listen to her Oral History Project interview.