RAVEN Campaigns Director Ana Simeon to pursue law degree

It’s not every day the phone rings with a scholarship offer to a prestigious legal program.  But the talents and skills of Ana Simeon, RAVEN’s Campaigns Director, generated both the call and the invite to join the University of Victoria’s new Joint Indigenous and Common law degree program in fall 2022. While we are excited to see what new directions her career takes, we’re also feeling the bittersweetness of the departure of our friend and amazing colleague. 

She definitely leaves big shoes to fill here at RAVEN.  Ana’s passion for Indigenous rights, access to justice and building relationships based on mutual support has shone through everything she’s accomplished over her six years with RAVEN. We know that the foundation of friendship, understanding, research and advocacy she built as Campaigns Director of our organization will serve her well as she embarks on this new journey.  

Can you introduce yourself? 

I’m Ana Simeon,  RAVEN’s Campaigns Director. I’m of Croatian ancestry mixed with some Polish and Czech and have been living in Canada for the past 20 years.

I’ve been with RAVEN for about six years. 

Before joining RAVEN, I worked with the Sierra Club BC on the Site C campaign. That’s what launched me on into this journey of learning about Indigenous people and their rights,  and colonization…  and how we unpack that and reverse that. 

What was it about RAVEN’s particular mandate that drew you from an environmental organization to working on Indigenous rights?

Well, it was a series of steps and it happened very organically. I rarely make decisions with my head alone… I get drawn to things.  So what happened with RAVEN: I first learned about the organization in 2014, when I was helping to organize the Tar Sands Healing Walk with a bunch of faith groups.

RAVEN was the entity that was receiving funds for the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, to support their Tar Sands Trial to push back against unwanted industrial expansion in their territory. A supporter, Terri Dance Bennink, gave this rousing speech about Beaver Lake Cree and the impending trial, and that’s how I learned about RAVEN. 

Then, of course, when I was a Sierra Club campaigner, and West Moberly Nation saw that the B.C. government was going to approve Site C, we needed to find money for them to launch a legal challenge, which was a judicial review at the time. So Susan (Smitten, RAVEN’s Executive Director) and I teamed up and I started doing these events with Julian Napoleon and Yvonne Tupper around the province.

So when I saw that a job at RAVEN was opening, I felt like this is the perfect next step! It just seemed the natural evolution of things. 

Obviously, RAVEN has been very lucky to have you. While we’ll circle back to some of the achievements and key learnings that have happened while working at RAVEN, let’s just go straight to what’s happening next in your life? 

Well, in September, I will be joining the JD/JID program at University of Victoria School of Law. That’s a program unique in Canada that teaches both Indigenous law and Common law, and it lasts four years. And it’s basically the ambition of a lifetime coming true. 

Have you always hankered after becoming a lawyer?

Well, it’s a bit like a meandering river. In my teens, I did want to be a lawyer. Back in Croatia, I was really torn between wanting to study languages and wanting to study law. And of course, in Europe, law school is an undergrad degree. So after high school you go and sit an entrance exam. So I sat both entrance exams at both universities and got in to both.

Then I thought, ‘Hmm, I’ll go with the languages because this is a communist system and I don’t want to be in a position to be working in a repressive regime.’ I didn’t have the money to actually be a defence lawyer and have my own law practice, which was very expensive to set up. So that’s what I decided back then, and I enjoyed my time at the university. I became a translator.

Then the next thing that happened was the war in Croatia.

After the peace was brokered and Croatia was recognized as a country, the international community decided to prosecute the war crimes that were committed not only in Croatia, but across the former Yugoslavia. Some really horrendous atrocities: prison camps, torture, even genocide. So as a translator, I obtained a position at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. That was back in 1996:  I worked there for several years. So that brought me into the orbit of the law again. And it was a life changing experience.

I specialized in legal translation, particularly trial and appeal judgments. Those are large documents – a trial judgment would have up to 300 – 350 pages, and  it would quote all the witnesses’ testimony about their experience.  You get a really gritty sense of what’s happened to those people and what the crime was. And that was really difficult to deal with.

I remember one particular judgment in the Srebrenica case – that’s the infamous genocide, involving the mass murder of several thousand Bosnian Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb troops. There were four of us translating this judgment, and I remember  we sat with a candle on because dealing with such evil was really hard.

But the flip side of that:  when you worked on an appeals judgment it was super interesting, because they dealt primarily with questions of law – standards of proof, errors of law and such – rather than questions of fact. We actually realised that the tribunal is a hybrid institution that has a common law element in it, but also elements of the Germanic law, which in turn is based on Roman law. It’s a hybrid institution, dealing in basically five languages. And so we went back upstream and looked at the Geneva Conventions, which is where it all started, and the preparatory work for the Geneva Conventions, in order to translate some of these terms. We had many deep discussions of what a concept like “command responsibility” actually entails. And that was like intellectual ice cream!

I so enjoyed that. Then, I decided to move to Canada and did. 

So let’s move to some of the things that you might have learned with your work at RAVEN. I’m particularly curious about what sort of shifts you’ve seen over the time that you’ve been with the organization in terms of culture, in terms of the courts and of course, personally in terms of what you yourself have learned. 

Well, that’s a really huge question.  I think what’s kind of the closest to to me right now, because I had to write about this for my JID application, is mostly about Treaty relationships. And that came through listening to Professor Borrows in his webinars and then reading his books.

Of course, now RAVEN has three treaty Nations that we work with. The way John Borrows frames it is really resonant for me at a deep level. He talks about how it’s not just Treaty rights, but it’s the treaty relationship.

In the Western approach to issues and including law, things are very often very cut and dried, and you have this right and that and it’s limited on all sides by different things. And of course, Professor Borrows himself says no right is absolute. But rights are not just discrete little packages that you have in your basket. A relationship is something that goes much deeper than that and requires really sincere regard for the other: on both sides. That’s, I think, how the original treaty was meant to be, and that’s how I believe Indigenous people believed it to be. But it wasn’t. And, you know, quite apart from the direct violations and the bad faith, even when there is good faith on the part of settler structures very often it’s just boxes to check instead of it being a living relationship.

That was a profound learning for me, and also in terms of where it might go and how the whole Canadian federation might be restructured and grounded in the treaty relationship. So basically, there shouldn’t be just the federal and provincial governments; there should be a third partner, which is the Nations.

It’s not what’s happening yet, but it might be going that direction. Martin Luther King says the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice. It’s a long arc to get to treaty federalism, but there is so much energy for it in so many people. I do believe we’ll get there. 

Beautiful. What are you most looking forward to in a JID program when you imagine yourself carrying your backpack to class the first day? 

Well, my first hope is that I’m actually going to be carrying an actual backpack to an actual classroom and not sitting on Zoom all morning.  I’m looking forward to all of it!

Of course, the  first thing I checked when I looked at the current year schedule was whether Professor Borrows teaches in the first year, and he does.

What I’ve done all my life is translate one side to the other and learn about the Common law side, which I also love very much. When you read those judgments and look at how decisions are made and how far the precedents go and how many centuries it took to hone the rules of evidence, for example, that take into account everybody’s rights, including the rights of the accused, it is a really great achievement given how in many societies people are just condemned and judged without a hearing.

I think in the third and fourth years there are a lot of field trips and actually you go and stay within the Indigenous community for a couple of weeks and learn from them, so that’s going to be amazing. I’m really looking forward to that. 

This is such a rich and plentiful summary. Is there anything that you feel is missing from that or that you really want to say?

I’m not leaving RAVEN in any other sense. I’m still keeping a couple of my monthly donations and more importantly, I plan to be visiting the office… maybe being a board member some day, and continuing my involvement with the organization. And who knows, maybe someday I’ll work on one of the cases! 

Access to justice is so incredibly important, and there are so many very valuable cases that never see the light of day or are stymied by the delay and outspend tactics of their opponents. What do you see is the ongoing importance of RAVEN’s work? 

I believe some of the Nations that we have worked with would never have gotten to court without RAVEN and the support of the bigger community that RAVEN focusses. We encounter these energetic people who are wanting to do something to help, and we give them something to do that actually has a tangible outcome. And how many organizations can say that?  Unfortunately, the way Canada has set things up since the new Constitution and the important Supreme Court cases, is that every time the Supreme Court has a big Indigenous case, they say, ‘well, reconciliation can’t happen only in the courtroom. You guys need to be talking to each other. You need to negotiate.’ 

Well, guess what? It doesn’t happen, or it happens with such conditions that Nations cannot accept, such as a demand for extinguishment of their Title in exchange for a modern day treaty. So, the Feds have kept this hard line about negotiating which forces Nations to go to court. This is speculation, but I think the underlying unspoken policy was, ‘well, let them fight for a Title. And so what if there is one or two who will get it, who will stay the course of 20 years and millions of dollars, but most of them won’t. So we don’t have anything to worry about, and by and by, they will assimilate.’ 

This grand plan was foiled by the idea of an organization that focuses and potentiates the energy of justice for Nations that exists in the Canadian public. The results RAVEN obtains would never happen through simply applying political pressure, because there are so many issues that people need action from their elected representatives:  this one would always drop down. But if you go to the courts, it cannot go away.

I believe that it’s a small pebble that causes the avalanche. We are a very small pebble, but  because we frame this mandate and support people in empowering it, it’s huge. 

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