June 16, 2023
Award-winning law student weaves values of reconciliation into everything she does
For second-year law student Colleen Chalifoux, reconciliation isn’t something that started 15 years ago when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was launched. For her family and her community, which hails from Grouard, northwest of Edmonton, reconciliation has been an ongoing process.
“Indigenous communities have always practiced forgiveness, and we were working on reconciliation before it was Reconciliation. We’ve been working through the trauma of residential schools, the 60s Scoop for a long time,” explains Chalifoux.
“We even knew as children growing up in Grouard (where the second search for unmarked graves happened after the Kamloops discovery) that there were babies under the concrete where we played dodgeball and jump rope.”
Compassion for survivors leads to Esquao award
A mother of two — her daughter is studying sports medicine at the University of Alberta and her son works in oil and gas engineering — working towards reconciliation has been a common thread throughout her life. After completing her undergrad degree at the University of Lethbridge in applied arts and criminal justice, Chalifoux spent several years working in children’s services and correctional services. While working at the Peace River Correctional Centre, she worked closely with Indigenous offenders building new programs and pathways to employment. When former Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the apology to Residential School survivors on June 11, 2008, Chalifoux recorded the broadcast, and was able to show it to about 50 Indigenous inmates.
“You could hear a pin drop while the men watched the apology. You could feel the emotion in the room because a lot of them were survivors.”
For her actions, Chalifoux was awarded an Esquao Award in the Justice and Human Rights category from the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women in 2013.
“It was such an honour to be recognized along with many great Indigenous women in Alberta,” she says.
Law school dream made possible with family support
As the first person in her family to go to law school, a legal career was always an interest for Chalifoux. Growing up, she advocated for Indigenous communities, and those communities are now supporting her on this journey.
Chalifoux acknowledges that being a law student isn’t easy, and for anyone considering law school her advice is to be prepared to be in an uncomfortable and challenging situation on a day-to-day basis. It’s important, however, to keep the end goal in mind throughout the journey. The journey for her wouldn’t have been possible without the support of her family, especially her son.
“I would not have been able to make ends meet without his financial support, as well as the scholarships I received to cover some of my tuition and expenses.”
Combine Indigenous and Western legal traditions
When she starts her career, Chalifoux hopes to be able to combine Indigenous and Western legal traditions to find solutions, particularly for her interest in environmental law and land claims work. She participated as one of 12 law students in a new field course on modern treaties and Indigenous self-government in the Yukon at the end of May. The course gave students hands-on experience in the workings of the 11 new modern treaties in that territory, which are no longer under the Indian Act and continue to make changes for a healthy community.
“We had the opportunity to meet guest speakers from the Indigenous communities in the region, including Elders, lawyers and judges, and hearing their language and participating in their vibrant culture made me want to be part of their community,” says Chalifoux.
“One thing I kept in mind is that we go in a good way, and leave in a good way, and the most important thing is to show respect to all mankind. There were many people who helped us during our two-week stay, and it was such a great learning experience and I hope to one day use this information for my Métis Nation and other First Nation and Inuit communities.”
June is National Indigenous History Month in Canada, an opportunity to learn about the unique cultures, traditions and experiences of First Nations, Inuit and Métis. It's a time to honour the stories, achievements and resilience of Indigenous Peoples, who have lived on this land since time immemorial and whose presence continues to impact the evolving Canada.