“Having come from a very hardworking family that was disrupted by my father and his siblings being forced into residential school, and subsequently, me and my siblings ending up in foster care, then later residential school, I didn’t understand what was happening. I didn’t understand the mechanisms that were at play that resulted in children, at times, being homeless, or not having parents, a community, or guidance,” says Judge Tina Dion. She says it was the desire to make sense of her experiences that motivated her to advocate for the promotion and protection of Indigenous peoples’ rights and interests.
Over the years, Judge Dion has had a significant impact in this area. Most notably, she assisted the Tsawwassen First Nation in its transition from an Indian Act style of government to a full self-government model and the Tsawwassen Government in merging into the Provincial court system and establishing its Judicial Council. She has been recognized for these contributions with several distinctions and awards, including being appointed Queen’s Counsel in 2016.
Judge Dion set out on this path by returning to school after having left in grade nine. In 1990, she enrolled in the Transition Year Program at the University of Alberta, pursuing a degree in native studies. The program was established to help Indigenous students who didn’t have a traditional educational upbringing transition into university life. Despite transitioning into full-time university studies, Judge Dion was determined to complete her studies within the regular four-year period. Achieving this meant that she had to complete 17 courses in the last 12 months of her program, which she successfully did, while working part-time and raising her young son.
Building on this, she enrolled in the LLB program at the Allard School of Law in 1994. Arriving at Allard Law, Judge Dion found being a law student daunting at first – especially as a single mom, in a new city and province. Despite these initial challenges, she says she carved out structured time for her studies and spending time with her son. Once she got into the groove, it became easier to stay on top of her studies. “When I look back on it now, 25 plus years later, I realize that I had a freedom of learning which I didn't appreciate as much then as I do now,” she reflects. “I remember often being stressed out and anxious about studying, exams and the weight of being in law school, but it was a really liberating and freeing experience being there.”
In 1996, as an exchange student with the College of Law (Arizona State University) and working as a law clerk to the Justices of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, she had the opportunity to meet the then Chief Justice of the Navajo Supreme Court, Robert Yazzie, who had visited Arizona State’s College of Law to give a talk. Recognizing an opportunity, Judge Dion approached Chief Justice Yazzie, and asked, “Can Canadian law students apply for clerkships at the Navajo Supreme Court?” Chief Justice Yazzie responded that although they never had one, they were open to receiving applications from Canadian law students. So, she sent in her application and became the first-ever Canadian law student to clerk with the Navajo Supreme Court. In 1997, she travelled to Window Rock, Arizona, where as a clerk she conducted research on questions of law, mostly based on the Navajo Nation Code. “It was an incredible experience,” says Judge Dion. “I wasn't sure what I was going to find, but once I arrived, the Navajo justices were completely welcoming and supportive. When I look back on it, I really was the luckiest person to have had that opportunity.”
Since then, she’s articled and practiced with a boutique criminal firm, later joining a national firm branching out into civil litigation, environmental Aboriginal law and administrative law. Judge Dion also worked as an adjunct professor at Allard Law for 12 years, teaching the First Nations Self-Government course. “I really enjoyed working with all of the students over the years. Together, thinking about self-government concepts, so that when they became lawyers, they would have at least the seed, the starting point, to apply those concepts in many different ways in their careers,” she says. In 2017, in recognition of the impact she has made through her teaching and community activities, she received the Courage in Law Award from the Indigenous Law Students Association at Allard Law.
Today, Judge Dion is a BC Provincial Court judge, and she says a priority in the courtroom is to make all litigants, whether self-represented or represented with counsel, feel heard. “At the Provincial Court, individuals come from diverse backgrounds,” she explains. “The Court is a place where all litigants, whatever their background, should feel respected, and no matter the outcome of the case, feel as though they were heard and understand the basis for the decision that was reached.”
As a lawyer, Judge Dion was actively involved with the Canadian Bar Association BC Branch (CBA BC), where she served as the Aboriginal Lawyers representative to the BC Branch Executive and was the co-chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Working Group of the CBA BC. “It was important to me to work with other Indigenous lawyers to increase the stature and influence of Indigenous lawyers within the legal profession and encourage Indigenous lawyers junior to me to build their practices,” she explains. “The Aboriginal Lawyers Forum was the perfect venue for us to have those discussions as a larger group.”
As co-chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Working Group, Judge Dion says that working with fellow lawyers learning about Indigenous and Canadian history was particularly meaningful. “I was really excited about my work on that committee, it was something that I will always cherish because together, all of us at the CBA BC made a substantial impact and I'm very grateful for the CBA BC’s support and work on that,” she says.
When asked about any advice she would give to her law-student self if she could go back in time, she advises not to overly worry about the future: “Because it’s a competitive environment, law students tend to worry about the ifs. ‘What if I don't get the job I want?’ ‘What if I don't make it?’ It's those kinds of what-ifs that I've learned not to overly worry about, although I did.”
On how best to maintain a healthy work-life balance, Judge Dion suggests, “Do what you want, when you want to do it.” She explains that this entails not being afraid of doing something new. For example, she enjoys travelling and has visited all the continents of the world. “I’ve done a lot of solo travel,” she says. “You don't always know what to expect, but when you come back from new experiences, you've learned something. You've met new people and had conversations you wouldn't otherwise have. It solidifies that you can do what you want to do when you want to do it, and you should, though many things have been tempered as a result of the current pandemic.”