By Paul Riggi
A Sister in Spirit
“Almost every day I wanted to quit.”
Bev Jacobs LLB ’94 spent the first year of law school juggling classes, assignments and exams with the responsibilities of being a single mother.
With no alternative, she lugged daughter Ashley, then eight, to classes. “She would be doing cartwheels in the middle of the school.”
Beyond her personal tribulations, she learned how the Canadian legal system had been a “tool of assimilation” of her Native people, and of property law concepts like land, tenure and conquest that went against everything she learned growing up as a Mohawk member of the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, Bear Clan.
The support of professors, the dean and associate dean were the bulwark she used against the tide of despair. “I think that’s what saved me – those relationships,” she says.
And Jacobs persevered.
The only Aboriginal student in her first year, she started the First Nations Law Students Society on campus. She graduated from Windsor, then obtained her Masters degree in Law in 2000.
Jacobs found Bear Clan Consulting and held stints as a sessional instructor in both Ontario and Saskatchewan in self-determination, Canadian Indian policies, Canadian lawand Aboriginal peoples and indigenous law.
In 2004, Jacobs was elected president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), an umbrella group working to enhance, promote and foster the social, economic, cultural and political well-being of First Nations and Metis women with First Nation and Canadian societies.
At the top of its list of high-profile issues is the yearlong Sisters in Spirit campaign. NWAC is trying to negotiate $10 million from the federal government to research what it estimates are 500 cases in the last 20 years of missing or murdered aboriginal women. NWAC wants a national registry, hotline, public education programs and fund to accurately document cases.
On the legal front, NWAC is involved in ongoing battles to protect and enhance Native women’s rights, including its lawsuit against Canada over the issue of women having recourse to matrimonial property on reserves. Jacobs says that case has stalled while the federal government argues whether NWAC should have standing in the courts.
NWAC is also monitoring the fallout from Bill C-31, federal legislation to amend the Indian Act. Since it was enacted in 1985, Jacobs says C-31’s aim to end sexual discrimination in the Indian Act for women who lost their status after marrying non-Indians has instead created another problem by creating “levels of status.”
NWAC is also busy addressing what Jacobs calls the “overrepresentation” of Native women in the justice system.
Through lobbying efforts, public education, partnerships and relationship building, Jacobs says NWAC is trying to make a positive difference in Aboriginal women’s lives. A strong proponent of lifelong learning, she continues to do her part through education, teaching and employment in righting the wrongs she learned during her days as a student in Windsor.
As for daughter Ashley, now 21 with two children of her own, Jacobs says she is preparing to enrol in university but has opted to study forensics.
“She doesn’t want to be a lawyer,” Jacobs says. “She’s already been to law school.”