The caption on her junior-high yearbook photo reads, “Dreams of being a lawyer or an actress.”
That was when Anita Cardinal-Stewart was full of hope, and anything seemed possible. But that hope evaporated through her teen years growing up in the Woodland Cree First Nation in northern Alberta.
“I started to see how hard it was for First Nations people, especially women,” she says, the memory still bringing tears to her eyes. “Suddenly, the dream seemed unattainable.”
By 17, she was pregnant with her first of three children, finishing high school at home by correspondence.
Now a 46-year-old grandmother, Cardinal-Stewart is finally on the verge of fulfilling that teenage dream – at least half of it.
After assisting on landmark Indigenous law cases as a paralegal – the Sixties Scoop and Newfoundland and Labrador Residential School claim settlement – she is graduating from the University of Alberta with a law degree.
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She is also this year’s winner of the inaugural Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella Prize, awarded by the Royal Society of Canada to one graduating law student in every law school in Canada.
“When I was younger, I was often ashamed of being Indigenous; it was hard growing up like that,” Cardinal-Stewart says. “Now I’m not ashamed anymore because I know the truth of my own worth.
“I’m not nervous – I’m excited for the future. I know what I believe in, and I know I’m going to do the best I can for my community.”
The journey to that confidence has been long. After giving birth to her son, she enrolled in business administration at her local community college, then transferred to MacEwan University for a diploma in management studies.
“My grandmother and grandfather were both residential school survivors, and my father really pushed education because he felt it was a way out of poverty. I had a wonderfully supportive family,” she says.
She worked as an education counsellor on her reserve, then as executive assistant for her band council. Around that time she met her husband and had two more children.
When they were old enough, she decided to make a career move one step closer to her yearbook aspiration. Deep down, she still wanted to be a lawyer but was convinced it just wasn’t within the realm of possibility: “I figured being a paralegal was the closest I could get.”
She returned to MacEwan for paralegal training and eventually found a job at Cooper Regel in Sherwood Park, Alta., a law firm beginning to take on important Indigenous cases, such as the Newfoundland and Labrador Residential School Settlement of 2017.
“In Happy Valley-Goose Bay, I was sitting in the front row at Justin Trudeau’s apology to survivors of residential schools,” she says, adding that Steven Cooper, a senior partner in her firm, had worked on the file for 10 years.
“It was amazing – that’s when I knew I wanted to go back to school and do my bachelor of arts, so I’d have the option of going to law school. Even if I didn’t say it out loud, I kept it close to my heart.
“I never said it to anyone, not even to myself.”
She began taking courses at the U of A. But it wasn’t until she met Catherine Bell, a professor in the Faculty of Law, at a speaker series event on campus that she finally decided to go for broke.
“She said, ‘Just do it; what are you waiting for?’ That’s when I was like, ‘Really? I could do this now?’ And I thought, why not? So I booked my LSAT.”
She started law school in the fall of 2019, and it soon became clear she’d found her true calling. But the courses were only half of it; what she did outside of class inspired her at least as much.
When the unmarked graves of 215 residential school children were found in Kamloops last May, Cardinal-Stewart immediately organized a vigil at the provincial legislature.
“Our hearts were broken in our communities, so I put out the word on social media and had about 600 people there within 48 hours,” she says.
“It just reinvigorated me, reminding me why I went to law school. It wasn’t for my career; it was for my community. I realized I need to advocate in any way I can and with whatever platform I’m able to use.”
According to her boss, Steven Cooper of Cooper Regel, she’s in an ideal position to do just that.
“She’s got the life skills of a grandma, of somebody raised in a fairly traditional Indigenous language and cultural environment, so she really is in the sweet spot to do the sort of work that’s important to her and to the clients she’s going to represent,” says Cooper.
“A good paralegal leads, not follows,” he adds. “A lot of people coming out of law school lack the innate ability to recognize a problem by tearing it down to its constituent parts. Anita is a good problem solver, finding solutions often creatively, beyond the obvious.”
A dedicated marathon runner, she organized a fundraising race for Orange Shirt Day last September, raising $10,000 for local charities Water Warriors YEG, the Bear Clan Patrol, and the Indian Residential School Survivors Society.
At the same time, she was assisting Cooper Regel with a major class-action lawsuit after learning in a first-year sociology class about the forced sterilization of many Indigenous women under Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act of 1928.
When she found out her mother was one of those women – coerced into sterilization after giving birth to her second child, even though she wanted more children – Cardinal-Stewart was livid.
Cooper agreed to take on the lawsuit, and she convinced her mother to act as representative plaintiff. She is still waiting for an update on the status of the case, filed in late 2018. It seeks $500 million in damages, plus another $50 million in punitive damages, on behalf of all Indigenous women sterilized in Alberta without their consent.
“That’s a really good example of where she’s able to maintain a professional distance,” says Cooper. “I mean, this is her mom. This is something personal to her.”
If that weren’t enough, Cardinal-Stewart has served two terms as co-president of the National Indigenous Law Students Association and writes for the award-winning blog Reconcili-ACTION YEG.
The doting grandmother to her three-year-old grandson Niko is also a passionate advocate for the rights of Indigenous youth. She is the program leader for Edmonton’s Level Justice Indigenous Youth Outreach Program, helping empower Indigenous youth through justice education and mentorship.
“I remember what it was like to be young and not have opportunities, to not know what was possible,” she says.
“My junior-high days were so full of hope, and then it went away. I don’t want it to go away for (today’s youth) too, so that they have to wait until they’re in their 40s like I had to.”
| By Geoff McMaster
Geoff is a reporter with the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.
The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.
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