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A woman of firsts

by Lawrence Scanlan

Roberta Jamieson – a Mohawk woman from the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory – was the first Indigenous woman in Canada to earn a law degree (Western Law class of 1976) and the first woman to be elected chief of the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory. She was also Commissioner of the Indian Commission of Ontario, and served ten years as Ontario’s first female Ombudsman.

One of eight siblings in a tight-knit family living on the Six Nations reserve, Jamieson learned at a young age the art of non-adversarial conflict resolution. After attending school on the reserve, she set her sights on medicine as a career, following in the footsteps of a great-uncle who had been a doctor. But while enrolled in pre-med studies at McGill University and away from her family for the first time, she became interested in the circumstances of the James Bay Cree whose traditional hunting grounds were to be flooded as part of a massive hydroelectric project in the early 1970s. She realized that the best way to help First Nations defend their rights and interests was to learn about
the law.

Jamieson has carved out a notable career as an advisor, leader, advocate and consensus builder – always with a keen eye to social justice, problem solving and, above all, the rights and interests of First Nations people.

In a book titled Great Women Leaders, which includes a chapter on Jamieson (and other luminaries such as Rosa Parks and Golda Meir), author Heather Ball describes how Jamieson became aware at an early age of Mohawk political traditions, including the process of “holding council” in which people gathered, traded opinions, and kept talking until consensus was reached. Ball noted that Jamieson honours that same tradition, “believing decisions should be reached by discussion and consultation in a cool-headed manner, rather than through angry confrontation. This is Roberta’s signature style and one of the reasons she is such a trusted negotiator.”

Since 2004, Jamieson has been president and CEO of Indspire, the Indigenous-led charity that in 2015-2016 awarded 3,792 bursaries and scholarships worth more than $12.2 million to Indigenous students. As part of her role, she is executive producer of the Indspire Awards, which honour Indigenous achievement and are telecast on two national networks.

Jamieson has received 25 honorary degrees and many distinguished awards, including the National Aboriginal Achievement Award (Law and Justice), the Indigenous Peoples Council Award of the Indigenous Bar Association, the Harmony Award (which recognized her contribution toward eliminating racial and social barriers in Canada), the first Deo Kernahan Memorial Award presented by the Urban Alliance on Race Relations in Toronto, and the Council of Ontario Universities’ David C. Smith Award.

Jamieson understands that reconciliation with Indigenous peoples will not be easy. “Change doesn’t just happen,” she has said. “It takes work, but it is achievable if we work together to make it happen.” 


This article was excerpted from the book They Desire a Better Country: The Order of Canada in 50 Stories published by Figure 1 Publishing.

This article appeared in the Western Law 2017 Alumni Magazine.
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