Compelled by recent high-profile trials, Dawson eyes law degree

Port Alberni, BC

Though she recently earned a social work degree from the University of Victoria, Mercediese Dawson has other plans.

The 29-year-old Port Alberni woman will be returning to the Victoria university this September. She’ll be studying in the school’s Indigenous law program.

Dawson is enrolled in the program, which is entering its second year, and officially called the Canadian Common Law (JD) and Indigenous Legal Orders (JID). The joint-degree program is the first of its kind in the world.

 “It’s really inspiring,” Dawson said. “I’m excited to see how they combine our Indigenous law with constitutional law.”

There’s also been federal interest in the program. This past March the Canadian government announced in its budget it would be granting $9.1 million to the University of Victoria to build a new National Centre for Indigenous Law and Reconciliation.

Dawson’s mother Karen is Nuu-chah-nulth, from the Ditidaht First Nation. And her father Gary is Kwakwaka’wakw.

“I was really excited when they first announced the Indigenous law program,” Dawson said. “I didn’t see myself doing anything with my social work degree.”

Dawson said she has aspired to be a lawyer for some time. She was part of a small class with only six graduating students in her high school, and was the only one who took a law course in her Grade 12 year at Ditidaht Community School.

Dawon’s interest in the field was renewed when UVic announced plans to add an Indigenous law program. At the time she was closely following a pair of noteworthy cases before the courts, trials for those accused of murdering a pair of Indigenous individuals, Tina Fontaine and Colton Boushie.

“All that happened at the same time and it got me interested in law school again,” Dawson said.

While she now plans to obtain a law degree, Dawson also set her sights set on politics, in all likelihood starting off with the Ditidaht First Nation.

“A lot of band members came to me and asked me to run for council this year,” Dawson said.

But since she is embarking on her law studies this year, Dawson felt it was not the right time to run to serve on the Ditidaht council.

“I wouldn’t be able to dedicate myself to being a councillor now since I’m going back to school,” she said.

But she’s already got her eyes on possibly running for a spot in the 2023 election in her community. And it might be for the top spot of chief instead of trying to secure one of the four available positions as councillor.

“I might run for chief,” she said. “I’ll have a law degree by then.”

Dawson created a bit of a stir at her recent convocation where she was presented with her social work degree.

“I was the only one in my traditional regalia,” she said. “I felt I really stood out.”

Dawson also stood out because she had a red hand print painted on her face, in recognition of missing and murdered Indigenous women. School officials had some discussions before deciding whether they would allow Dawson to walk across the stage to be handed her degree.

“I told them I’m not going to say anything or do anything but I am going to make my statement about this,” she said.

Dawson is following in the footsteps of her father. He had earned his social work degree from UVic in 2011.

Dawson is spending her summer in Port Alberni as she works for the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council. She’s been hired as co-ordinator for the annual Tlu-piich Games.

Those multi-sport Games are scheduled for Aug. 6-11.

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