She was a fierce advocate for access to justice, and a legal trailblazer in her own right — one of the first Indigenous Yukon women to graduate from the University of Victoria’s law program, and the Yukon’s first Indigenous Crown attorney.
She was also known for her sharp wit and dry sense of humour, her love of a good joke perhaps only matched by her love of fashion, her impeccable sense of style recognized both in private, in the courtroom, and later on, on the national stage.
Melissa Atkinson, a longtime Yukon lawyer, former federal NDP candidate and Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in (TH) citizen, died the morning of Feb. 14.
She was 45.
A born-and-raised Yukoner with Han, Kaska and Tlingit roots, Atkinson had a long and varied legal career, graduating with a bachelor of laws from the University of Victoria in 1999 before returning to the Yukon and becoming the territory’s first First Nations Crown prosecutor in 2002.
Atkinson also served as chair of the Yukon Human Rights Commission from 2004 and 2010, when she left the Crown’s office to take a position as a senior lawyer with the Yukon Legal Services Society (YLSS).
Atkinson’s years as a Crown prosecutor offered her a special insight into criminal law, and she quickly became the lawyer others would turn to for advice, YLSS assistant executive director Lynn MacDiarmid wrote in a Feb. 20 email.
“Melissa was a fierce advocate for marginalized and vulnerable people, and had a profound way of connecting with others,” MacDiarmid wrote.
“She knew how to gain the trust of the people she represented, which isn’t always an easy thing to do when working with disadvantaged people who may be facing challenges such as mental health or addiction issues.”
Atkinson had a “heart of gold,” MacDiarmid added, “a charming individual with a great smile and infectious personality.”
In an emailed statement, Yukon justice minister Tracy-Anne McPhee, who had known Atkinson since she was a young lawyer, described her as a “bright light.”
“Melissa was truly dedicated to her clients, our community and to improving the practice of law, for us all,” McPhee wrote. “She had a beautiful energy, great style and a positive approach to every part of her work. I hope her family and friends find some small comfort in knowing how much her colleagues truly appreciated Melissa and how much we will all miss her.”
Being an Indigenous woman in law wasn’t always easy, Atkinson wrote in an essay for the Canadian Bar Association in 2018; she faced misogyny and racism, but drew strength from the teachings and tools of her ancestors.
“After 20 years as a litigator, I have noted fewer and fewer senior female lawyer colleagues by my side,” she wrote. “Just recently, though, I’ve seen a small handful of female Indigenous lawyers starting out … I have hope.”
Besides her legal career, which also included serving as president of the Canadian Bar Association’s Yukon branch and work for the Toronto-based Aboriginal Legal Services, Atkinson also made a name for herself in the political sphere when she ran as the Yukon’s NDP candidate in the 2015 federal election.
In an interview Feb. 19, Yukon NDP MLA Kate White said that while she had met Atkinson before the 2015 election, she got to know Atkinson well as they attended events and went door-to-door together.
On top of Atkinson’s famous humour and genuine compassion for the people around her, White said Atkinson’s sense of style also left a lasting impression on her.
“She loved fashion, she was super fashionable, from the top of her head to the tip of her toes,” White said. “But one of my favourite (memories) was that she was always so coordinated, like her nail polish would match the colour of her shoes, which matched the colour of her accessories, and it’s like far beyond anything that I could ever attempt.”
Besides her professional accomplishments, Atkinson was also a “humble, hardworking, compassionate person with a strong desire to better society an help all people,” TH said in a press release Feb. 15.
“Melissa was a special, selfless individual and a role model for youth,” TH Chief Roberta Joseph said in the press release.
“It’s always sad when we lose a citizen; it’s even sadder to lose a young person like Melissa, but we are thankful for all she’s done for our people and all Yukoners. On behalf of the TH Council and citizens, I’d like to express our deepest condolences to her family and friends.”
Atkinson’s funeral is scheduled to take place at 2 p.m. Feb. 21 at the High Country Inn Convention Centre, with interment at Grey Mountain Cemetery and a tea ceremony at the convention centre to follow.
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org