Raising the bar Indigenous lawyer Brad Regehr brings personal passion to his mission to combat systemic racism in the justice system

It was a life-changing moment for a Winnipeg child who grew up to become the first Indigenous president in the history of the Canadian Bar Association.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/11/2020 (760 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was a life-changing moment for a Winnipeg child who grew up to become the first Indigenous president in the history of the Canadian Bar Association.

It was the fall of 1968 and and Brad Regehr was a six-month-old Cree infant when he was adopted in what is now commonly known as the ‘60s Scoop, the large-scale removal of Indigenous children from their birth communities and subsequent adoption into predominantly non-Indigenous families.

SUPPLIED Brad Regehr in his adopted family home in 1971.

Over a casual lunch of burgers a week before Code Red pandemic restrictions kicked in, Regehr smiles as he recounts a singular moment that took place on the day 52 years ago when his Mennonite adoptive parents, Rudy and Anne, welcomed him into their family in Winnipeg’s west Fort Garry neighbourhood.

“My mom and dad were sitting there meeting with a social worker to finalize the adoption,” says Regehr, who on Sept. 1 made history as the first Indigenous person to lead the largest professional association for lawyers in Canada.

“My mom, this quiet, gentle person who you would never think would do anything sneaky, the social worker gets up and walks out to get something, and my mom leans over the desk and peeks into the file and sees a few tidbits of information which she kept to herself,” he says.

“She got what my name was, which actually ended up being really important… It’s Vincent Emile Bear. I don’t think I would have made a good ‘Vinny.’ She told me when I was older, and as I got older and more familiar with Indigenous communities, I started to recognize that surname in different places. Bear is a pretty popular surname.”

“I never thought of it, not once. Didn’t even really watch the lawyer shows… Never contemplated being a lawyer. Originally, I wanted to be a fireman.”
– Brad Regehr on wanting to become a lawyer when he grew up

Called to the bar in 1997, the Winnipeg-raised lawyer become a prominent expert in aboriginal law and in 2017 became a partner at Winnipeg’s Maurice Law, the first — and only — Indigenous-owned national law firm in the country.

He’s taken the high-profile reins as the leader of the country’s main lawyers organization for a one-year term at a remarkable moment in history — not only amid a global pandemic but at a time when the world is coming to grips with a tumultuous reckoning over racial injustice.

Today, he’s determined to use his presidency to help lead the charge to purge Canada’s justice system of the systemic racism that for too long has plagued Indigenous Canadians and other people of colour.

It’s somewhat surprising in the sense that, growing up as an Indigenous child in a close-knit Mennonite family — he had an older brother and two older sisters, one of whom was also adopted — the last thing on his mind was the idea of becoming a lawyer and fighting for the rights of an oppressed community he had never really known.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Brad Regehr is the first Indigenous president of the Canadian Bar Association.

“I never thought of it, not once,” he says. “Didn’t even really watch the lawyer shows. I was more interested in sitcoms or actions shows. Never contemplated being a lawyer. Originally, I wanted to be a fireman. Absolutely! Remember that 1970s TV show Emergency, with Johnny Gage and Roy DeSoto? That was my favourite show my whole life… I wanted to help people.

After attending General Byng Elementary and Westgate Mennonite Collegiate, he enrolled at Canadian Mennonite University, then known as Canadian Mennonite Bible College. He got his undergrad degree at the University of Waterloo, with a focus on Indigenous issues.

He was working part-time at the campus centre when a friend who aspired to be a lawyer showed him a copy of the law school admission test (LSAT) booklet.

“I read it through on my break and I’m going, ‘This is interesting. It would give me skills in being an advocate, especially in the area where I want to work, which is legal issues with Indigenous people.’”

In the winter of 1994, at the age of 25, during his first year in law school at the University of Manitoba, he began to think of the day his adoptive mom discovered his birth name, and turned detective to locate the birth family he never knew.

About Brad Regehr

A member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, Regeher joined Maurice Law in 2017 as a partner in the Winnipeg office. Over his 20 years of practice, he has worked on a wide variety of legal matters, including aboriginal law, corporate/commercial law, civil litigation and administrative law.

A member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, Regeher joined Maurice Law in 2017 as a partner in the Winnipeg office. Over his 20 years of practice, he has worked on a wide variety of legal matters, including aboriginal law, corporate/commercial law, civil litigation and administrative law.

He was part of the legal team that successfully defended a challenge to a First Nation’s tax laws under the First Nation Fiscal Management Act, the first litigation involving that statute. He also acted for a First Nation that became a partner in a major hydro-electric project. He was involved in the negotiations of the project agreements as well as appearing before both the Clean Environment Commission and Public Utilities Board during the regulatory processes.

Regehr has also advised numerous First Nation clients on implementation issues involving both land claim and flooding agreements. He was involved in the litigation concerning the disposal of the Kapyong Barracks in Winnipeg and has been involved in an arbitration under the Manitoba Treaty Land Entitlement Framework Agreement which resulted in the arbitrator ordering the Province of Manitoba to set transfer a particular parcel of land to Canada to be set aside as a new reserve. He recently completed a two-year term as President of the Manitoba Bar Association, the first Indigenous lawyer to hold that office and the first lawyer since 1946 to hold the office for two years.

He has coached his son’s sports teams, most recently as a coach of baseball where he channelled his best Walter Matthau and Billy Bob Thornton imitations.

He was a board member of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre from 2017 to 2019.

Source: mauricelaw.com

His parents never hid the fact he was adopted and shared what little information they had.

‘That’s when we discovered that Pukatwagan has a lot of people with the last name Bear, that’s a Cree community (in northern Manitoba),” he recalled. “And just across the border in Sandy Bay, Saskatchewan, that surname is very popular, and everyone is related between Pukatwagan and Sandy Bay.”

Armed with his birth family’s surname, a small army of friends began cold calling numbers in Saskatchewan, including the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation. And that’s when his family saga took another twist worthy of a Hollywood movie.

“They called the offices in Sandy Bay and spoke to the CFS worker… and said, ‘There’s this young man, his name was Vincent Emile Bear.’ She turned out to be my aunt, and she says ‘We’ve been looking for him for a long time!’

“It was after I was born they became aware that my (biological) mom had had a baby in Winnipeg but he’d been given up for adoption.”

“They called the offices in Sandy Bay and spoke to the CFS worker… She turned out to be my aunt, and she says ‘We’ve been looking for him for a long time!’ “

The person who’d made that cold call quickly informed Regehr of the astonishing discovery. He made subsequently made contact with a grandparent, cousins, uncles and aunts, none of whom had seen his biological mom in years; they finally discovered she was living in Thompson. “One of my aunts called me back and said, ‘We’ve got her number, we’ve got her number! Call her!’”

Throughout a 90-minute lunchtime chat, Regehr answers questions in a calm, candid manner, laughing openly and often. But he also displays a hidden intensity, a surge of emotions, as he discusses battling racism in the justice system and the miraculous discovery of his birth mother and siblings.

‘On the Sunday, I call her…” he begins, pausing to collect himself, “it was initially a subdued conversation… it was both of us being very cautious. Then it warmed up. We were on the phone for probably an hour.”

After his birth mother, Yvonne, had given him up for adoption, she’d met a man in Thompson whom she eventually married; he had four children from a previous marriage. She had two boys with him, Steve and Joey.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Brad Regehr's parents never hid the fact he was adopted.

“My step-siblings never knew about me,” Regehr says. “Their dad, Cy, he knew about me, but never told them.”

Two weeks later, Yvonne arrived in Winnipeg for a visit. In short order, Regehr met his half-brothers and a number of other long-lost relatives. It’s an emotionally draining story, but one the new leader of Canada’s legal community is eager to share.

“It was certainly emotional. It was pretty overwhelming,” he says, adding that she was moved to tears by photos he’d brought along to show her. “Because of course she had missed all that. All my school photos and pictures of me as a little boy, all that kind of stuff.”

The happy ending was, unfortunately, painfully short. Regehr still doesn’t know the identity of his biological father and his biological mom was in ill health.

“I met her in ‘94 and she died almost exactly five years later in ‘99. I was happy (with) the time I got to spend with her,” he says of Yvonne, who was just 57 when she died of cancer. “In the last couple of years, I spent a lot of time with her.

“She was at Riverview (Health Centre). She just looked at me one time, when she was dying and said: ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything.’ I said, ‘You don’t need to be sorry.’

“I met her in ‘94 and she died almost exactly five years later in ‘99. I was happy (with) the time I got to spend with her. In the last couple of years, I spent a lot of time with her.”
– Brad Regehr on meeting his birth mother

“I told her I was the lucky one. I got adopted into a loving family. I never went hungry. I was never cold. I got everything that I needed. I might not have gotten everything I wanted — like that dirt bike,” he says with a laugh, “but I got everything I needed. I got to go to good schools, I got to have higher education. I have a great adopted family and it was a big extended family who have been super supportive of everything.”

Regehr firmly believes his unique family history contributed to the man he has become, and he is keenly aware of the importance others place on his being the first Indigenous leader in the long history of Canada’s bar association.

What you don’t know about Brad Regehr

How to pronounce his name: Re-Gear

Marital status: Together for 17 years with common-law partner Nalini Reddy, a Winnipeg lawyer. They got engaged in 2019 and planned to wed in June, but COVID-19 put it on hold.

Children: Two sons, 15 and 13, with Reddy, and a 26-year-old son from a previous marriage.

Hidden talent: He’s performed in eight productions of The Lawyers Play — a joint fundraising production between the Manitoba Bar Association and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. “I can’t sing to save my life,” he says.

Love story: He met his partner in 2003 when both had parts in You Can’t Take it With You. “Someone dared me to do it… I played an IRS agent who tries to talk to the patriarch of the family; she played a daughter of the patriarch and she dreamed of being a ballerina. We got to know each other through rehearsals and just started to hang out a lot.”

Pets: A 16-year-old Shih Tzu-poodle cross named Suki, and a 10-year-old rescue cat, dubbed “Kit Kat” or “Kit-Tay,” that insists on inserting itself in his Zoom video calls with legal colleagues. “All of a sudden she’s in my lap and you can see her tail and the tips of her ears. I’m trying to push her down and suddenly she jumps on my shoulders and her tail is whacking me in the face and the judge shouts: ‘I can see your cat!’ And the entire panel started laughing.”

Passions: Animals and sports. “I’m a big Jets fan. I like my hockey. And I’m a big Raptors fan… I played some sports, none of them very well.”

Hidden talent No. 2: “I can still recite the opening lines of Duke Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I played Theseus in The Lawyers Play and Nalini was (Queen) Hippolyta … (recites in a loud voice) now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour draws on apace. Four happy days bring in another moon. But, oh, methinks how slow this old moon wanes. She lingers my desires…”

He’s a humble man, but his resume is awash in glowing credits — he was vice-president of the national bar association last year (the VP is promoted to president after one year), and spent two years as head of the Manitoba Bar Association.

He’s thrilled with his new role, but makes no bones about the fact it was a long time coming.

“The fact I’m the first Indigenous president is pretty cool… Our organization has needed this for a very long time. It’s 124 years old, and at 123 it gets its first Black president (Vivene Salmon) and at 124 its first Indigenous president.

“Everybody before that — everybody — was Caucasian. Of course, for the longest time it was always men. Over the last 20 years that’s changed a lot, there’s been a lot of women presidents. But it was time we had someone who wasn’t Caucasian be the president.”

He’s embarrassed to be called a role model, but is happy to think his success will inspire young Indigenous people to believe they can achieve anything.

Regehr became a lawyer to represent Indigenous peoples, but his goals in office cover a wide spectrum, including helping lawyers cope with the unique health and professional challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve developed a task force; we’re doing a report on how the legal profession had to adapt and react to COVID… and are some of those changes going to remain permanent. For example, doing trials by Zoom, or other video platforms.”

But he is determined to use his term to focus on the 94 calls to action that arose from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s inquiry into what happened to Indigenous children who were physically and sexually abused in government boarding schools.

“I’m doing these Podcasts with the President which are all about that… looking specifically at calls for action,” he says.

His own biological grandfather endured unknown abuse at a residential school. “He didn’t talk about it, but our understanding was it was pretty horrible,” he says. “And yet when he turned 18 and World War II was underway, he travelled to Winnipeg and tried to enlist and was rejected because he’d had TB, which he picked up in residential school. A lot of kids got TB in residential school because of the health conditions.”

Regehr also points to a longstanding lack of diversity on the bench. Of Canada’s 44 federal judges, for example, only two identify as either Indigenous or a person of colour. The association has written to the prime minister and the minister of justice pressing for more judges of colour.

“What we should be looking to fill our bench with are people who can provide different perspectives, and unfortunately we’re just not getting to the point that I’d like to see it at. Certainly we do have Indigenous judges here in Manitoba at some levels of our court, but not a lot,” he says. “The fact is… we have never had a non-Caucasian judge on the Supreme Court in the history of Canada, not once… and now with this bilingualism requirement it’s going to reduce the available pool of people to select from. In overall terms, Canada is 17 per cent bilingual; if you go into Indigenous communities you are down to 10 per cent.”

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Regehr spent two years as head of the Manitoba Bar Association.

It’s when the topic of systemic racism in the justice system is raised that Regehr flashes the hidden steel that will be required to make real change, something he says can only happen if Indigenous people and other marginalized groups are at the forefront, driving the discussion.

“Systemic discrimination exists,” he says. “Anyone who says it doesn’t is living in a fantasy world. I said in my presidential address… I intend on having these uncomfortable conversations, and I’m not going to apologize for it. Conversations about systemic racism within the justice system. I’m not going to shy away from it or stop talking about it because people are uncomfortable.

“Out of the U.S., we had Breonna Taylor killed (by police). George Floyd killed by police. That’s happening here. You’ve got Chantal Moore in (New Brunswick), a wellness check and somehow she gets pumped full of bullets. We’ve got Eishia Hudson, a 16-year-old (Winnipeg) girl, from what appears to be a property crime, gets shot. I’m sorry, I’m not OK with this! I’m really not. And I know people will say there’s still an investigation going on. Yeah, well, I just need to look at the numbers — who’s getting shot and who’s doing the shooting? In Canada, it’s by and large Indigenous people getting shot and it’s police who are doing the shooting…

“When I see a chief in northern Alberta being assaulted by an RCMP officer, when I see a guy having a wellness check and police officers banging his door down with an axe and he’s screaming and yelling at the guy, that’s not a wellness check. That’s just messed up!”

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Doug Speirs

Doug Speirs
Columnist

Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.

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