Lawyer. Academic. Mother. Changemaker: Meet Kekinusuqs Dr. Judith Sayers

| Story by Rachel Ivey |

Dr. Judith Sayers has so many accomplishments to her name, it would take a documentary film series to cover them all. This dynamic, generous leader is constantly in motion, constantly in service, and yet always seems to have time to work on issues that arise in her community, and to create opportunities for a better world. 

Sayers is a member of the Hupacasath First Nation, whose territory encompasses 28 watersheds in the surrounds of Port Alberni on Vancouver Island. She acted as elected chief for 14 years, and then became chief Treaty negotiator on behalf of her Nation for 15 years. 

A dedicated renewable energy proponent, she was instrumental in implementing the China Creek Run-of-the-River project. Located on Alberni Inlet, a massive fjord cutting from the Pacific all the way to Hupacasath territory,  China Creek made an ideal location for an environmentally friendly run-of-river hydro electricity plant that allowed the Nation more economic opportunities.

Since the project’s inception, Sayers has joined Clean Energy BC to mentor and advise other First Nations and corporations on clean energy projects. 

Her pioneering work is gaining recognition across the country. In addition to becoming a member of the Order of Canada in 2019, Sayers received the silver award from the Canadian Environmental Awards in the Climate Change category for her role in the China Creek project. She was inducted in the Aboriginal Business Hall of Fame in 2009, is a recipient of Bora Laskin Fellowship on Human Rights, was twice the Woman of Distinction from the Alberni Chamber of Commerce and was honoured by Atira Women’s Resource Society as an Inspirational Women. 

Becoming a good ancestor

So you’re wondering: how did this accomplished woman get to where she is today? We all have to start somewhere, after all. 

Sayers grew up on Vancouver Island within the Hupacasath Nation. Her grandfather was the Hereditary Chief; Sayers ascribes the reason for his appointment to the fact that he could speak English and could communicate with community members in their Indigenous language, and also with the colonial powers. The Sayers family recognized the importance of having training and education in both traditional knowledge and mainstream western education. She grew up using that advantage while remembering her values and teachings.

At 12 years old she had a fascination with the law and decided that she would become a lawyer. She went to university and pursued a business and law degree, later receiving  an honorary Doctor of Laws from Queen’s University. In an interview, she describes having a difficult time finding a law firm with which to complete her articling period – a requirement to become a lawyer in British Columbia. 

Imagine: this was at a time when, just a decade previous, it had been illegal for an Indigenous person to practice law, or even hire a lawyer. Until 1951,  Section 141 of the Indian Act prevented Indigenous people from hiring lawyers to pursue their land claims, effectively barring Indigenous Peoples from pursuing their rights. Any lawyer who defied this prohibition by giving legal counsel to an Indigenous person could be disbarred or jailed.

Sayers was also attempting to gain a foothold in the legal profession at a time when only 12% of lawyers were female. A trailblazer in more ways than one, Sayers broke down barriers and defied Indian Act gender discrimination to become the first female lawyer her Nation had ever seen. 

After graduating as one of the first Indigenous students from UBC law school, Sayers  went to work with the Indian Association of Alberta to fight to ensure Indigenous rights would be enshrined in Canada’s constitution. She took part in the Constitution Express, a cross-country caravan that was instrumental in pushing Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s government to enshrine Section 35 into Canada’s Constitution. Section 35 underpins every aspect of RAVEN’s work, as it declares that, “the existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.” 

Looking to establish her own law practice, Sayers moved on from national politics to work with Willie Littlechild, a Ermineskin Cree lawyer from Hobbema, Alberta, where she was able to complete her articles and set herself up in a law practice.  

A large part of her early career was in international law. She travelled to Geneva, Switzerland two or three times a year, working on the Draft Declaration of Indigenous Rights through the International Labour Organization. With two children and as a single mother, Sayers decided to move back home to be with family in Port Alberni, where she spent a decade running a family law practice.

But she gathered no moss at home; it was here that she ran for Chief and was elected in seven consecutive elections, where she helped develop consultation protocol, government relations, and a land use plan grounded in Indigenous ecological management with the overall goal of rehabilitating Hupacasath territory. 

In 2012, Sayers became involved with the University of Victoria as an adjunct professor in the faculty of law and business. Additionally,  she was elected President of the Nuu-Chan-nulth Tribal Council – responsible for services and support for 14 Nations on Vancouver Island. Her most recent accomplishment, in August 2020, was being named Chancellor of Vancouver Island University. In her induction into the Order of Canada – the highest civilian honour in the country – it was said that “She is the epitome of what it means to be an exemplary leader and advocate for all Nuu-chah-nulth people.”

In my my life I’ve been a doctor, a lawyer, an Indian chief, a professor, and president –  now,  a chancellor.” 

Kekinusuqs Judith Sayers, Hupacasath First Nation

Though she sets a stellar example for young and Indigenous women who follow in her footsteps, Sayers has shared that she has thought about walking away from her many commitments and ‘just’ working as a lawyer. But, having her trustworthy advisors around her and a strong  support system has given her the resilience  to uphold her vision and pursue a determined path forward — for her children, and for her community. 

We are honoured to be presenting a full interview with Kekinusuqs Judith Sayer in Season 2 of our podcast, RAVEN (De)Briefs. Meanwhile you can check out past episodes and catch Dr. Sayers presenting with Heiltsuk leader Marilyn Slett on the “Masks Not Blindfolds” webinar from September 23, 2020.

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