How Akitsiraq came to be
The Akitsiraq dream to produce more Inuit lawyers began about a decade ago, after a territorial judge and colleagues started questioning why more local residents weren’t taking top positions in the legal system.
Justice Beverley Browne said she believed that local court clerks and interpreters had the skills and smarts to become judges and lawyers.
Browne said she was “naïve” enough to push some youth to go south. But they felt overwhelmed at the idea of leaving home, and pursuing a law degree, sometimes with children in tow.
In turn, Browne helped set up the Akitsiraq Law Society, a board of community volunteers intent on making a law education available to northerners, specifically Inuit.
“Akitsiraq” means “to strike out disharmony and wrongdoing and to render justice.” It’s also the name for a ring of large stones that mark a secret meeting place near Cape Dorset, where a grand Inuit council used to resolve disputes.
In 2000, they teamed up with the University of Victoria, and several sponsors.
The result was a program that allowed students to study in Iqaluit, by sending professors north. They received over 100 applications from Inuit and Inuvialuit across the country, and chose 18 students for full sponsorship. Two non-beneficiaries were accepted, but they had to pay their own way through the government of Nunavut’s financial aid program for students.
“I think law school trains leaders,” Browne said, sitting in the court’s judges chambers. “We’ve now got highly educated people with very finely developed analytical skills, and they’ll do very well in whatever field they decide to work in.”
The program came under fire from critics in the South, who accused the graduates of receiving a “second-rate” education. Critics in Nunavut complained the law students were getting paid about $58,000 per year, while other students found it difficult to pay all their bills.
Alexina Kublu, chair of the board and a justice of the peace, said the graduates have received the same calibre of education as any students in the South.
High-paying scholarships allowed the program to attract adults who had already started careers. This required a budget of $5 million in funding from groups including the GN, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., Justice Canada, the RCMP, Kakivak Association, and other private and public funders. Nunavut Arctic College was another partner.
“The skepticism from southern Canada was the most major hurdle,” Kublu said. “It isn’t always southern Canada, either. The students have been under the magnifying glass the whole time.”