Faculty of Law

Faculty of Law
Faculty of Law

Law’89 grad, a First Nations member, is helping to improve Manitoba treaty relationships 

(August 16, 2017)

Loretta Ross, Law’89, Treaty Commissioner for Manitoba
Loretta Ross, Law’89, Treaty Commissioner for Manitoba

The federal government’s recent decision to name Loretta Ross to a one-year appointment as the Treaty Commissioner for Manitoba is one the Law’89 alumna was keen to accept.

“I’ve been on the job since May 29 and have had opportunities to work with First Nations people, government representatives, and non-First Nations people, and I’m optimistic that we can move forward and get a lot of things done,” she says.

The Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, a neutral body that was created in 2003 through a partnership between the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) and the federal government, works to strengthen, rebuild, and enhance the treaty relationship and mutual respect between First Nations and Manitobans as envisaged by the treaty parties. 

Those are goals Loretta Ross has pursued for most of her life. A member of the Hollow Water First Nation, she has a keen awareness of land claims issues, treaty rights, and other matters of concern to Manitoba’s 64 First Nations communities.

It was an early educational experience during a “career day” at her local school that a young Ross’s dream of becoming a lawyer was born. Ironically, the experience was not a positive one – at least not initially.

“One of the visitors was an Indigenous student advisor who told us about different careers, including those in law. I was excited about the possibilities, until a teacher told me and some other girls, ‘Don’t get too excited about becoming lawyers. It’s more likely you’ll be nurses, teachers, or moms,’” Ross recalls. “I felt crushed.”

Fortunately, her maternal grandfather – George Barker, Chief of the Hollow Water First Nation for 44 years and a much-respected community elder – told young Loretta to ignore such negative talk. She happily followed his advice.

After finishing high school and completing the Program of Legal Studies for Native People at the University of Saskatchewan in 1983, Ross joined a couple of her Saskatoon classmates who came to Queen’s to study law. “It was strange, at first. No one in Kingston had even heard of Hollow Water First Nation,” says Ross.

Regardless, when she settled in at Queen’s Law she received a solid legal education – she found John Whyte’s Constitutional Law course to be especially relevant – and she met and became friends with other Indigenous students. “One was Patricia Monture (Law’88, LLD’09). She really helped to open my eyes to the possibilities for using the law to advance Indigenous and treaty rights issues,” Ross says. (Monture, a well-known Mohawk activist, educator, and author, died in 2010.)

After graduation, Ross spent a year in Toronto articling. She returned home to Manitoba to do research for the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry and work in various areas of the law, including child and family services, residential schools, and self-government. In 1995, she joined the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) for a 10-year stint, before moving on to serve as legal counsel for the Fox Lake Cree Nation and then for her own Hollow Water First Nation.

It was the AMC that put Ross’s name forward for appointment as Manitoba Treaty Commissioner – the first female Treaty Commissioner within the Numbered Treaties in Canada. The Assembly’s support is vital to the work of the Treaty Commission, and Ross says she is pleased and honoured to have it. “The process of resolving treaty rights and obligations is something I really want to be involved in. My sense is that there’s a growing and sincere desire for positive change on all sides. The big challenge in moving forward will be to get everybody on the same page so we can make some substantive movement in the many issues surrounding the treaties. I’m hopeful we can do that.”

By Ken Cuthbertson