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Nunavut students taking first steps in long climb to law degrees

"We have a saying that we read till our eyes bleed," student Alanna Copland says of the rigours of the Nunavut Law Program.

Nunavut law students Alanna Copland, left, Pascal MacLellan, Tagalik Eccles, Angnakuluk Friesen, Samantha Barnes and Guy d'Argencourt pore over their legal studies in the Nunavut Law Program.
Michele LeTourneau/NNSL photo

That's figurative, of course, but sometimes it almost feels that way for the 25 law students based in Iqaluit, who are now in their second semester of a four-year law program.

The first semester kicked off in September with five courses – the legal process, Inuit history and government relations, introduction to research methods, legal writing and communications and an examination of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement – plus Inuktitut lessons, which will continue throughout the program.

The legal process course, rife with "legalese," can be hard to wrap her head around, Copland admitted, calling it "very difficult."

"That's not English," she said, laughing.

Classmate Tagalik Eccles agreed that comprehending myriad legal terms like "normative jurisprudence," "legal pluralism" and "legal realism" is daunting.

Mastering that knowledge, as big a task as it may be, is a challenge Copland welcomes.

"I think we're really lucky, as opposed to other law schools in Canada. They don't have much or don't even touch on Indigenous law," Copland said. "With this being a four-year program as opposed to a three-year program, they're really integrating a lot of Inuit traditional law."

Copland is fascinated by the contents of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, which was new subject matter for her.

"Honestly, I've never really read up on it. I come from a finance background," she said.

Her last formal learning in a classroom was several years ago when she took computer business and aviation management programs in college. Although she now spends three hours in class each weekday, Copland said she and many of her cohort allot another five to seven hours daily to reading, researching, writing and studying.

‘Huge adjustment’

For the past seven years Copland worked as a finance officer. Returning to class was "a huge adjustment," she acknowledged.

"I found it was very hard for me to retain things in the beginning because I wasn't used to all this load," she said. "It gets easier with time. There's 25 of us and we're all very supportive of one another."

For Eccles, the learning process has been continuous. After graduating high school, she moved to Ottawa for the Nunavut Sivuniksavut college program.

"I've always had an interest in law … it worked out after my first year of Nunavut Sivuniksavut. It was perfect timing, so I applied," Eccles said. "(Law) was my number one and only choice. If it didn't work out (in Nunavut) I would have (attained) my law degree in Ottawa."

Eccles, who aspires to become a Crown prosecutor, said the volume of work has definitely increased compared to her previous educational experiences.

"I devote most of my evening and weekends to reading and working on assignments," she said, but noted that there's plenty of assistance available. "The professors are extremely helpful. They're always willing to answer questions."

Copland concurred, saying there's adequate support through Nunavut Arctic College and law program partner University of Saskatchewan, based in Saskatoon.

"Our professors have offices in the same (college) building and also they're very prompt to (reply to) emails. They're very supportive," said Copland. "Then we have people in the law community who offer mentorship. We have all been assigned a mentor in the legal field."

Both students come from the Kivalliq region. Eccles hails from Rankin Inlet while Copland was born and raised in Arviat. Eccles has relatives in Iqaluit so she said she finds it easier to reside in Nunavut's capital than in Ottawa, where she was the previous year.

Copland misses home but she said it's been made easier by the friendships she's quickly formed with her classmates.

Her family is pleased with her choice to pursue a law degree, she added.

"They're all proud of where I'm going."

Someday she plans to make arguments in courtrooms to protect their legal rights.

"I really want to advocate for Inuit in Inuktitut," she said. "I want to fight for my people."

The program is delivered as a partnership between the College of Law, Nunavut Arctic College and the Government of Nunavut.