Métis lawyer Robyn Gervais wins civil liberties award

Published in Windspeaker newspaper | June 23, 2012 | Circulation: 145,000

Robyn Gervais in her Vancouver law offices. Photo by David P. Ball

The Métis lawyer who made headlines when she resigned in protest from the job of Aboriginal counsel at B.C.’s missing women inquiry has been awarded the province’s top civil liberties award.

Robyn Gervais was named winner of the 2012 Reg Robson Award for Defending Rights and Freedoms, alongside Cameron Ward, who represented 25 families in the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. The award was bestowed at the 50th anniversary gala of the BC Civil Liberties Association held June 2.

The litigation and environmental lawyer at Vancouver’s Harper Grey LLP made international headlines on March 6 when she withdrew from the inquiry, the mandate of which was to investigate why serial killer Robert Pickton was not arrested sooner. Gervais accused the commission overseeing the inquiry of enabling a “one-sided story through a police filter.” The inquiry had faced boycotts from major Aboriginal groups and other interested parties after they were denied funding to participate.

Overlooking downtown Vancouver and its iconic mountain backdrop from her firm’s 32nd storey boardroom, Gervais sat down with Raven’s Eye for an exclusive interview on her experiences inside the inquiry, as well as her path as an Aboriginal lawyer.

“I was extremely moved by the consistent attention the Aboriginal community brought to the inquiry,” Gervais said, recounting frequent drum circles held on the streets outside the hearings. “They were there from the first day – from before the first day.

“I’m glad they took a stand. I think, going forward, the only thing really positive that came out of it was a clear Aboriginal interest. Hopefully that will help push for a national inquiry.”

The call for a Royal Commission on Canada’s more than 600 missing and murdered Aboriginal women was announced on April 10, when a dozen groups, including the Assembly of First Nations, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, and Amnesty International reaffirmed their opposition to the way the missing women inquiry in B.C. was unfolding.

For Gervais, being behind the scenes inside was both a challenge and an opportunity.

“I was really excited about the opportunity,” she said. “I didn’t really know what was going to unfold.

“I thought maybe I would be able to gain the support of the Aboriginal community… I thought that if I do a really good job, people will see that it’s worth it.”

But as more and more organizations expressed their dismay with the investigation they had fought to achieve over the course of a decade, Gervais found herself increasingly isolated behind the courtroom bar.

“To be honest, that was a huge, huge part of the difficulty; that I didn’t have any clients,” she said, explaining the vagueness of representing Aboriginal interests in general.
“Not only did I not have any clients, but the inquiry wasn’t supported by the Aboriginal community.

“The lack of support from the Aboriginal community was a huge factor. . . I thought that having no representation in the courtroom was worse than having one person represent.”

Although she eagerly took on the commission’s appointment as Aboriginal counsel, it was apparent from the beginning–as problems and controversies piled up–there might be a limit to her involvement, Gervais knew.

“Right from when I first started, I knew there might come a point where, (if) I wasn’t able to do my job, for whatever reason that I would leave,” she said. “Potentially, I knew that might happen.

“Going in, I was completely overwhelmed. I was in way over my head… I think it was a lot of things – being the only lawyer representing Aboriginal interests; there was also a difficult climate for sure; and being a very junior lawyer… The lack of support from the Aboriginal community was a huge factor.”

Asked what motivates her to practice Aboriginal law, the 30-something lawyer glances out the skyscraper window with a determined look, at once fierce and calm. That same determination was tangible the day she stood up and resigned before Commissioner Wally Oppal, flanked by Aboriginal leaders.

“The one thing I want is to make positive change,” she said. “There’s so many areas the Aboriginal community can use change.”

After graduating from University of British Columbia law school in 2008, Gervais articled in Aboriginal child protection – an area she hopes to pursue. Born in Saskatchewan but adopted into a white Alberta family, Gervais felt particularly called to address the issue of the large number of children in the child welfare system.
She originally wanted to be a social worker, even earning a degree in that subject.

“I quickly figured out that I did not want to be a social worker, because I really didn’t like being on the front line,” she admitted. “I needed to be more emotionally detached.

“(Law) is not as direct an impact as being there, holding someone’s hand while they’re crying or providing them with a food voucher, or that kind of thing. But clearly, the law is a way people can improve their lives… I wish it weren’t true, but so many people involved in the child welfare system are Aboriginal people; so many are on welfare.”

Gervais, however, was the opposite of detached during the inquiry.

Robyn Gervais credited Michele Pineault, whose daughter Stephanie Lane’s DNA was found on Pickton’s farm, for motivating Gervais when things got tough.
“She was always so open,” Pineault said. “When I had a bad day, she was the first one there to support me.
When I didn’t feel like coming or felt, ‘I can’t be here anymore,’ she would support that too.

“She’s just the kind of person that I love, and I can give you any number of reasons: her personality, her openness, her gentle way.”

For Gervais, the resiliency and strength she saw in Pineault and other families continues to motivate her to work for the betterment of Aboriginal communities. Ultimately, she reflected, it’s impossible to remain emotionally detached – even in the legal system.

“Honestly, for me there’s no other way to be there, with people are who are obviously hurting,” she said. “I’m not (just) a lawyer – I’m a human being.”

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