Every Thursday at 4 p.m., Dustin Seguin signs into Zoom and aims to be the role model he wished he had as a teenager.
"Growing up Indigenous and low-income, we didn’t have anyone come in and tell us about post-secondary education or prospects, or law schools," the second-year law student recalled on a recent school day, as he reflected on being a high schooler in Winnipeg’s Brooklands neighbourhood 20 years ago. "Law school was so out of reach."
Both of Seguin’s grandmothers were sent to residential school and neither of his parents obtained a high school diploma. Seguin, now 34, always expected he would go straight into the workforce after Grade 12 — and that’s exactly what the Cree-Métis graduate did.
He wants Indigenous youth today to know they have other options.
The University of Manitoba, Seven Oaks School Division and Wayfinders have launched a first-of-its-kind pilot program to expose teenagers to higher learning with an introduction to Indigenous studies and law education.
Law Makers participants learn from Indigenous mentors, who are either active lawyers or Robson Hall students such as Seguin, as they work towards both a secondary school and university course credit. The program, which is funded through the Mastercard Foundation’s EleV initiative, began earlier in 2021-22.
"The biggest thing that we’re trying to do here is open as many doors as possible and keep them open for as long as possible for Indigenous youth," Seguin said.
Advisers oversee weekly discussions about various legal topics — many of which intersect with systemic racism — and currently earn research stipends for their contributions. (U of M plans to roll out a final-year externship program next year so they can also earn post-secondary law credits.)
So far, approximately a dozen teenagers have explored the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, Meech Lake Accord, and Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, among other subjects that affect modern legal practice and societal issues, during virtual sessions.
Seven Oaks has long believed in the power of mentors, said Matt Henderson, assistant superintendent of curriculum and programs.
"We have passionate industry members coming in and working side by side with students, sharing their skills, sharing their knowledge, and just sharing their way of being within a particular domain. This is where we see deeper learning thrive," Henderson said.
The success of Tech Hub, an extra-credit program in the division in which students connect with digital media industry mentors to build video games, prompted Henderson to brainstorm ways to develop a similar initiative for humanities education. The Manitoba Law Students Association was eager to collaborate.
"This should be a mandatory course for students because if you don’t know how the (legal) system works, how are you going to know when injustice is occurring?" said Hailey Peebles, a Grade 11 student at Maples Collegiate.
The Ojibwe and Cree student, who aspires to work in Indigenous governance, said she wanted to study law to learn more about land claims and treaty rights.
Carly McKay, a 16-year-old from Berens River First Nation, echoed similar comments Friday.
The Grade 11 student said she has witnessed much injustice in her own community and wants to understand more about the legal system so she has a solid background in law to pursue social work.
"It’s very important for people to know their rights and to know what’s going on in the world," she said.
"I think it wakes up people, because we learn so much about the tragedies that are going on and about how we can make a change," Carly added, noting Law Makers has made her want to connect with her community’s elders and learn more about her people’s history.
The program not only allows high school students to see themselves represented in law studies, but it provides them with a pathway into Robson Hall, said Marc Kruse, an Indigenous student support co-ordinator at U of M.
"Our mentors get the chance to give back, the chance to teach, and the chance to explain their life experience," Kruse said, adding law students can share tips about scholarship applications.
An estimated 12 to 15 per cent of the law faculty’s student population identifies as First Nations, Métis or Inuit.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.