Born to Advocate
Multi-talented law student poised for action with her law degree
Graduating law student Danielle Morrison, has already established an exciting career of advocating for others, all before her convocation day. Hailing from Kenora, Ontario,Treaty 3 and Anishinaabe territory, Morrison will begin articling with the Public Interest Law Centre (PILC), soon after her Faculty of Law class convocation, taking place Friday, June 7. While articling at PILC will give her hands-on training to represent groups or individuals in matters affecting a broad spectrum of people, she already has accumulated an impressive array of experience in advocating for people and communities in need of a strong, representative voice.
Coming to Robson Hall with an undergraduate degree from the University of Ottawa in Visual Arts (Honours) with a minor in Indigenous Studies, Morrison remained active as a visual artist throughout her three years in law school. She created the cover of a recent issue of the Manitoba Law Journal, and designed and painted the art covering a tipi that was used to welcome first year law students during the 2018 Orientation week. A busy mom, Morrison is also a jingle dress dancer and small business owner, having launched her own brand called Clan Mother Goods & Apparel this past December.
Throughout law school, Morrison was involved with a number of Manitoba Law Student Association committees including the Manitoba Indigenous Law Students’ Association (MILSA), and CanU, while founding the Student Pipeline Action Committee (SPAC). Outside of Robson Hall, she was a past board member for Sarasvati Theatre Productions, was a founding member for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Indigenous Advisory Circle, and was a Legacy Fund Developer for the Joseph Morrison Legacy Fund. On top of these commitments, she achieved high academic excellence and won a number of awards including the E.J. McMurray Entrance Scholarship, the UMSU Award for Indigenous Community Leaders, and the Indigenous Bar Association (IBA) Law Student Scholarship.
To fully appreciate Morrison’s incredible motivation and unique spirit, we asked her to share her law school experience in her own words:
“Being accepted into such a prestigious field of study is by far one of the life accomplishments I am most proud of.”
What made you first want to apply for law school?
I spent most of my lifetime advocating for Indigenous people through program service and delivery models such as Friendship Centres, however my journey took a different direction into the realm of law and justice when I started working with the Indian Residential Schools Adjudication Secretariat and later with the Assembly of First Nations. Working closely with Survivors of the Indian Residential School System had a profound impact on my life. I formed deep bonds with generations of Survivors who had endured so much trauma and persevered to live a good life today. It also gave me a glimpse into a field of work lacking Indigenous representation. I contemplated law school for many years after I left my work with Survivors. I didn’t think I was smart enough to get into law school, and I also had a new, young family to look after – time did not seem to be in favour of the commitment. It wasn’t until some very good friends of mine encouraged me to write the LSAT and apply for law school because, what else did I have to lose? The worst that could happen after at least trying would be that I wouldn’t be accepted and my life would carry on. I wrote the LSAT with a one-year old daughter at home, intensely studying in the evenings for a few hours at a time. In March 2016, I received an unconditional offer into law school. Being accepted into such a prestigious field of study is by far one of the life accomplishments I am most proud of.
Was this something you had always wanted to do?
Being an advocate and working closely with my own people is something I have always been inspired by and good at doing, however I never envisioned that this calling would take the form of becoming a lawyer. It almost seems inherent, however, given that many of my family members work in the field of justice – my father was a Justice of the Peace, my mother a Mediator, my sisters each a Gladue Writer and Police Officer. The criminal justice system has also positively and negatively impacted many members of my family, and so it is not unfamiliar territory. I truly believe that my life took the direction that it did for a reason – I was meant to spend such an intimate time with Survivors as an awakening to the many injustices that exist for Indigenous people. I consider myself extremely lucky to carry on the legacy of justice work that my family, and am continually inspired by the resiliency of our people and the hard work of those before me.
“I learned a very important lesson during this time – that law reform was necessary for the lives of Indigenous people. System disruption was the only way forward.”
What were the biggest highlights of your law school career?
Throughout law school, there have been critical points in the history and struggle of Indigenous people in North America that myself and many other Indigenous law students felt intensely impacted by. In our first year of law school, the level of conflict reached in Standing Rock led to a shocking and violent situation. Thousands gathered in an historic fashion, and yet we felt helpless being in school and unable to stand in solidarity at the frontlines with our communities. In an effort to support those in Standing Rock, myself and a group of other first year law students established the Student Pipeline Action Committee and quickly organized a fundraising campaign with “Water Is Life” t-shirts. I [created] the design in the style of Anishinaabe woodlands and the campaign went viral. Within the span of two and a half of weeks, we fundraised $5,000 in support of the Water Protectors Legal Collective. We continued this work throughout first and second year in support of similar movements.
In our second year of law school, the trial involving Gerald Stanley and Colten Boushie was front and centre attention. It permeated conversations in and out of class and created a divisive atmosphere not only within Canadian society, but especially in law school. When the final verdict came out, law students, faculty and lawyers came together in solidarity and support of the family. We marched and fundraised for those impacted. At the time, I was volunteering with the Indigenous Youth Outreach Program, a mentorship program that teaches Indigenous young people in the north end of Winnipeg about the criminal justice system. It was very apparent that there was a question of how valuable the lives of Indigenous youth were and whether the justice system worked for us or against us. I learned a very important lesson during this time – that law reform was necessary for the lives of Indigenous people. System disruption was the only way forward.
Finally, in my third and final year, I assisted the Law Society of Manitoba in partnership with the Manitoba Indigenous Law Students Association to organize the first Indigenous law CPD [Continuing Professional Development] program, Tebweta Ajiimowin – To Tell the Truth. During a critical time when the Western system of law was so clearly oppressing Indigenous people, this program grounded me in the truth that Indigenous legal traditions have been around since time immemorial and that this was our future. Not only is revitalizing Indigenous law an imperative part of self-determination, but also reconciliation between Canada and Indigenous people.
“We survived law school by relying on and loving one another unconditionally.”
What were the biggest challenges you faced and what did you learn from them to move forward?
Law school is an intense commitment that requires excellent organizational and time management skills. Many consider the biggest feat of law school to be learning how to cope with the intense studying demands. The biggest challenges I faced in law school were dealing with trauma and unexpected personal losses. In my second year of law school, I lost my brother to suicide. It was a deeply traumatic time and I had to learn how to cope with the grief in order to finish my studies. This type of trauma was not unfamiliar to many Indigenous students in law school. We were all dealing with similar circumstances that the average law student could barely fathom – all while raising families, serving community, and performing well academically. We survived law school by relying on and loving one another unconditionally.
“Law school is not a competition – lift each other up and you will all succeed together.”
What knowledge or lessons learned would you most like to share with future law students?
As a law student entering the field of justice, it is imperative to know and acknowledge your place and privilege in society coming into law school. You are about to start a career as advocate for the voiceless. It is easy to get caught up in the legal complexities of caselaw and forget that there is a very human aspect to this work. Things like race, income, class, age, gender, disability, and sexual orientation directly impact and can determine the outcome of any case. In order to become a good advocate, you have to view the system of law from the lens of the people you are representing. If you cannot understand or even begin to relate to the unique circumstances faced by an individual, how can you expect to speak to their legal issues in a meaningful way?
Finally, it is just as important to care for yourself in all of the work that you will carry out as a student and practitioner. Many lose themselves in the demanding and stressful field of law. Ground yourself by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and relationships with people who inspire you, who care for you, and who will remind you that you are capable and that you will get through those hard moments in law school. Law school is not a competition – lift each other up and you will all succeed together.