“We buried my aunt yesterday,” Leslie Pinder begins. “I was reflecting at the service that she was actually the one who got me into all of this. [She] was a very beautiful but rather stern, matriarchal kind of woman. She said, ‘And what are you going to do in your life?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m going to become a writer.’ She said, ‘Oh, no, no, no, you can’t become a writer. You have no experience! Why don’t you get a job at the police department? You’ll get experience there!’ For some reason, I picked up the challenge and thought, ‘Well, you know, she’s probably right.’”
Born in 1948 in Elrose, Saskatchewan, Leslie Pinder earned her BA in English literature from the University of Saskatchewan, then traveled Europe before heading to Vancouver to pursue a Masters of English at UBC. But that conversation with her aunt led her to forego the relative ease of student life for some “experience” at 222 Main Street.
As a case reporter, Pinder worked shifts in the basement typing police investigation reports. Over time, she became curious about what happened to the reports after they left her hands, so she worked her way up—two floors up—into the courts as a recorder. It was, she says, “a perfect job for a writer, because all you had to do was turn on the machine and sit in court all day. Stories just came through the door every hour or so.”
Pinder got to know the lawyers and judges, and became interested in their submissions. She found herself spending time in the prosecutors’ law library reading the cases they cited and memorizing Latin phrases. But when she tossed ex proprio vigore into conversation at a dinner party one evening, a friend said, “‘You’re getting very involved in this. You should think about becoming a lawyer.’” Once more, Pinder accepted the challenge.
At UBC, Pinder met Louise Mandell, a second-year student with whom she would eventually form Mandell Pinder LLP. “We were very rambunctious,” Pinder says laughingly of her political activities with Mandell. “[It was] intellectually very stimulating and so much fun. We were out to see how we could change the world!”
Both Pinder and Mandell sought to refine their training in large firms after law school, but neither felt she’d found her niche. When Mandell accepted a position with the Union of BC Indian Chiefs working with then-President George Manuel, she said to Pinder, “This is amazing, what’s happening here. Come on over!”
It was 1978, and Pinder and Mandell suddenly found themselves “on the inside.” Pinder says, “There was an elder who was part of the [Union’s] legal team and … she was there … to teach us who the people were, how to understand the different communities and what was important to [them].”
In 1982, when Canada sought to patriate the constitution, Pinder and Mandell were dispatched to London to stop it. “Our argument,” says Pinder, “was that you [couldn’t] have the devolution of rights from the Crown to a different order of government until these original obligations that were accepted when Britain created the colony [were] dealt with. [Native] people saw [their relationship to the Crown] as very tangible and very direct and not at all abstract and ‘Where is the Queen?’ and ‘What does she have to say about this?’”
The Queen said yes, “and then of course the hard spade work [began],” says Pinder, “of trying to have Section 35 become a meaningful provision [in light of the phrase ‘existing Aboriginal rights’]. Lawyers for the politicians and local governments were saying Aboriginal rights had been extinguished so there was nothing existing at the time of the patriation. That argument continued to be made until it was finally resolved in Delgamuukw. That’s not very long ago.”
Pinder and Mandell joined forces in 1983, and their Supreme Court of Canada advocacy work included Guerin v The Queen ; Pasco v CNR ; Apsassin v The Queen ; R. v Nikal ; R. v Vanderpeet ; Delgamuukw ; and R. v Grey and Sappier .
Pinder also worked as a sessional lecturer at UBC, teaching “The Spirit and the Land,” about how language, myth, ceremony, writing and storytelling explain family ties, governance and spiritual traditions in Western and Native societies; and at SFU, teaching “First Nations and Treaty Negotiations” with Hugh Brody.
And throughout it all, Pinder wrote. “I was very disciplined,” she says. “Nothing interrupted my lunch hour.” In 1986, Under the House, a novel about family secrets, was published to critical acclaim. On Double Tracks, a courtroom drama about Native land claims, came out in 1990 and was short listed for the Governor General’s Award for literature. Between 1990 and 1997, Pinder also wrote two plays, several short stories, articles and reviews, and the libretto for an opera.
But by 2003, Pinder found that “the demands of the law just got too onerous. I had one of those three o’clock in the morning dark night of the soul times,” she recalls. “I woke up and thought, ‘Who am I? Am I a lawyer? Am I a writer? Because I am not at this point able to do both.’ And I decided that I was not prepared to not be a writer.”
Her writing informed her work and her teaching throughout her legal career, and all that she learned during that career continues to inform her writing. She is currently at work on a novel about a renowned anthropologist working for Native people in the 1950s who commits suicide at the height of his career. Its title: Bring Me One of Everything. “[What] the Native communities went through in contact,” says Pinder, “was like the very centre of meaning was ripped out of their lives in a way that we can only understand after 9/11. The sense of terror, and where is the terror coming from, and where is safety? That lasted for generations. This man who went into their community experienced it.”
Pinder adds, “If you care about people who have gone through that experience, you go through it, too.” She could be talking about herself.
Written by Diane Haynes and originally published in the UBC Law Alumni Magazine, Winter 2008.