An Interview with Laura Sharp: Discussing Feminism in Indigenous Law
About Laura Sharp
Laura Sharp graduated from Western University in 2014 with a Bachelor's Degree in Political Science and Government. She then went on to study at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University and graduated in 2019. She is now an Associate Lawyer at Nahwegahbow, Corbiere. In this written interview, Laura shares her experiences in law school, her perspective on Intersectional feminism, and discusses steps towards Indigenous reconciliation and allyship.
Tell me a little bit about you. What do you do? What are your hobbies outside of work?
Usually when people answer the question 'tell me a bit about you’ there’s a laundry list of degrees and awards. We’ll get there, but first and foremost I’m a daughter, sister and auntie. I am both English and a Mohawk member of the Haudenosaunee confederacy from Six Nations of the Grand River. My mother is a sixties scoop survivor, and over the past two decades I have reconnected with my large, loud and hilarious family from Six Nations.
I have an honours specialization degree in political science from the University of Western Ontario and a juris doctor from Osgoode Hall Law School. I was called to the Bar of Ontario in 2020. I articled at Nahwegahbow Corbiere and began work as an associate there when I was called to the bar. Nahwegahbow Corbiere is a law firm located at Rama First Nation that exclusively serves First Nations individuals, businesses, organizations and governments. The focus of my practice is primarily on Aboriginal treaty and rights litigation. Much of my work involves Elder Oral History evidence, meaning I am blessed to spend some of my practice interviewing Elders.
Before going to law school, I was a bartender and then a sommelier. I have a passion for food and wine, so when I’m not practicing law, you’ll often find me hosting wine tasting dinner parties for my colleagues, friends and families. Just like the study of law, whether it be Canadian law or Indigenous Peoples own laws, the study of wine is complex and it takes a lifetime to become an expert.
What are the most important learnings that you took away from Law School?
(1) Prioritize relationships. The relationships you make in law school will be important for your entire career. Your fellow students will be important to learn from, vent to, and blow off steam with. You need a community. Your professors may become mentors or friends, or both. The lawyers and professors you meet in law school may help you secure a summer or articling position and will be important mentors/friends as you begin practicing.
(2) Not everyone comes to law school on equal footing – stop comparing yourself to everyone else. You don’t know who has a lawyer or judge parent who can give advice regarding law school assignments or summer jobs, or who is a first-generation law student who has children at home and minimal time to study. The important thing is that you try your best and ask for help when you need it. A low grade isn’t the end of the world. Speak with upper year students to find study techniques that work for you, or how to prepare canned answers for an exam. Speak to your professors about where you can improve.
(3) Look for a career in an area of practice you’re passionate about, not what is popular or prestigious. Going into law school I thought I needed a Bay Street job because that’s what everyone else seemed to think was important. It took a horrible semester where I took classes in Business Law, Commercial Law, Securities Law and Tax Law for me to realize this isn’t the work I wanted to do on a day-to-day basis after law school.
(4) Think critically. Do the laws and systems in place that you’re learning about serve the diverse Canadian population well? Where does the law need to grow and change create a more equal society? Becoming a lawyer comes with the professional responsibility of being a zealous advocate for your clients and the power to advocate for change. Bold, culturally competent lawyers are needed to create change in many areas of law, including Aboriginal Law (Canadian law as it applies to Indigenous Peoples).
In what ways does the importance of intersectional feminism come to light in your life and in your work?
The practice of law is often called an ‘Old Boys Club’. While this is certainly changing, it’s important for law firms and organizations to recognize the ways in which women’s intersectional identity – whether it be the way their gender intersects with socio-economic background, race, sexual orientation, or other factors – impacts legal practice. For example, an intersectional lens can be an asset in communicating with clients and gaining their trust, or in developing a legal claim.
It is also so important young women lawyers from diverse backgrounds to find a mentor and community who also have an intersectional background to help them navigate the practice of law. Growing up, I didn’t know any lawyers. I am lucky now to surround myself with brilliant Indigenous women lawyers who provide me with advice, a place to rant, and friendship. I cannot stress enough how comforting it is to have your experiences validated by seasoned members of the bar – and to work with these same women to bring changes to the legal profession.
These relationships have come to me from a variety of places. One is through my work with the Indigenous Bar Association in Canada (IBA), where I served as a member of the Board of Directors from 2017-2021. The IBA is a non-profit professional association for First Nation, Inuit and Métis persons trained in the field of law. Through this work, I have met many women I am blessed to call friends and whose work inspires me. Indigenous women are more likely to be incarcerated and to have their children apprehended, among other things. These Indigenous women lawyers (and many men as well) advocate for legal changes in Canada that speak to issues that are at the core of intersectional feminism.
As an associate lawyer advocating for First Nation individuals, communities, and businesses, what steps do you see are being taken in the law towards reconciliation?
It is difficult to speak about reconciliation and remain optimistic when there is still so much work to be done. This question could be a thesis in itself. But, one example of steps being taken in the law towards reconciliation is the Restoule v Canada, 2018 ONSC 7701 decision, where we have seen some movement towards the Court respecting Indigenous Peoples’ own laws. In her decision, Justice Hennessy entitled a section ‘Miigwetch’, which means thank you in Anishinaabemowin, the language of the Anishinaabe. She says:
 The First Nations were warm and generous hosts when the court convened in their communities. As a court party, we participated in Sweat Lodge ceremonies, Pipe ceremonies, Sacred Fire teachings, Smudge ceremonies, Eagle Staff and Eagle Feather presentations, and Feasts. During the ceremonies, there were often teachings, sometimes centered on bimaadiziwin — how to lead a good life. Often teachings were more specific (e.g. on the role of the sacred fire, the role of sacred medicines, or the meaning and significance of the ceremonies). The entire court party expressed their gratitude for the generosity of the many knowledge keepers who provided the teachings. I believe I speak for the counsel teams when I say that the teachings and the hospitality gave us an appreciation of the modern exercise of ancient practices.
This decision gives me hope. It is a complex case regarding the Robinson Huron Treaty of 1850. Reconciliation requires both learning and relationships, and we can see how the Parties in this case engaged in both.
How can women be strong allies to Indigenous women in school, in the workplace, and in our personal lives?
Women who want to be strong allies to Indigenous women need to first educate themselves by learning from content created by Indigenous Peoples, especially Indigenous women: books, films, lectures. Learn what Treaties govern the land you live and work on, and who’s territory it is. While you study, when you read news articles, or as you have conversations with friends and family - think critically about the narrative that is being presented about Indigenous women.
Where there are opportunities, create relationships with Indigenous communities or individuals, but only if you can do so in a respectful way that does not create an additional burden on that community or individual. At work or school, advocate with (not for) Indigenous women when the institution or individuals could do better – whether that’s shutting down someone making racist remarks in class, hiring more Indigenous faculty or including more Indigenous content in curriculums.
Indigenous students often carry the burden of both re-learning their own culture that colonialism tried to take from them while also teaching their classmates and professors about that culture. It’s exhausting. Small things help. Sometimes, being an ally is cooking your Indigenous friend dinner or ordering them skip the dishes after a particularly exhausting day dealing with colonial violence. Listen. Be outraged with them. And then begin to plan – how will tomorrow be different?
When there’s injustice regarding Indigenous issues, write to your government representative(s), amplify Indigenous voices who are speaking on these issues, and/or donate to a fund supporting the Indigenous group(s) advocating for change. Spend your money at Indigenous businesses.
Remember: you don’t get to decide if or when you’re an ally – Indigenous people and communities do. And, being an ally is a verb, not a noun. It is an action.
Thank you/Nia:wen for giving me the opportunity to share some of my thoughts with the Queen’s University community. Wishing you all a healthy semester. Don’t forget to go outside and take mental health breaks, the textbooks will still be there when you get back.