Standing before a courtroom packed with proud friends and relatives, Claire Anderson raised her arms chest high and turned her palms up, a sign of respect and gratitude.
The 29-year-old member of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation, called to the Yukon bar yesterday, made the gesture towards a group of singers who came all the way from Atlin, B.C. to celebrate the achievement with her.
Wearing a black-and-red button blanket and colourful cedar hat, Anderson said it felt like a homecoming ceremony.
Raised in Whitehorse, she graduated from F.H. Collins Secondary School in 2003.
“When the fishing season starts, we have a feast after we catch the first fish and bring the bones back to the river,” she said.
“We pray and make an offering and we thank the fish for giving us its life. We hope the bones serve as a reminder so the fish are able to find their way back to the ocean to spawn and complete their life cycle by coming back to the place where we deposited the bones.
“This feels like a cycle of regeneration because I feel like I get to come back to the place where I’m from.”
Anderson said she wants to help her First Nation achieve a degree of economic independence so it can distance itself from government.
“I want to start working on our own policies and create an economy so that we can really focus our energy into thriving socially and culturally, without having to worry on the finances.”
Born in Smithers, B.C., Anderson and her family moved to Whitehorse in 1990.
She graduated with a B.A. in psychology from the University of British Columbia in 2009 and finished law school there last year.
She articled with the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs in Toronto for more than a year.
She’s worked with the First Nation since 2010 in various capacities, first in the lands and resources department and then as a reconciliation project officer.
Paul Lackowicz, a partner at Lackowicz & Hoffman, gave the commencement speech yesterday.
He talked about Claire’s accomplishments, the impact she’s had on her community through her volunteer work and became slightly emotional when talking about the importance of education.
“That’s something that can never be taken away from you,” he said, his voice breaking.
“As a lawyer you’ll be a guardian and a gatekeeper. You’ll be a leader in your community, a role model.
“You will be judged as a lawyer based on the quality of your judgment.”
Anderson was also called to the bar in Ontario last month.
She sits on the board of the T’akhu A Tlen Conservancy, which works to protect the traditional territory of the Taku River Tlingit Nation, and volunteers with traditional dance groups.
Justice Leigh Gower told Anderson he’d allowed her to attend the ceremony in traditional clothing because he understood the significance.
He also spoke about the importance of the black robe she would normally wear inside a Yukon courtroom.
“I hope you wear it with pride, dignity and a certain level of reverence,” he said.
“It does not distract the eye. It draws attention to a lawyer’s words as he attempts to persuade – and a lawyer’s business is all about the art of persuasion.”
Anderson prefaced her speech by acknowledging her mother, Judy, her grandmother, Mary, and many aunts and uncles.
She said she was grateful for their presence and delighted to be able to start practising law.
“I think they even had to shut down the band office to come here,” she said with a laugh.
“Part of our responsibility as indigenous lawyers is to start bringing our laws back to the courtroom. It wasn’t that long ago that the potlatch was illegal. Now, here we are the Tlingit becoming lawyers. Our laws aren’t illegal anymore.”
The potlatch is a gift-giving feast among indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest that was deemed illegal by the Canadian government in 1884 and de-criminalized in 1951.
Following the ceremony Anderson’s mother, beaming with pride, kept her thoughts brief.
“My heart is so full,” she said.
Contact Myles Dolphin at