Distinguished Alumni: Andrea Menard

Andrea Menard assists Aboriginal law students at one of the most respected law schools in the country.

She provides both academic and non-academic assistance by providing an Indigenous-friendly environment for the Aboriginal law students to ensure they’ll flourish in the tough, demanding three-year program.

As Director of Indigenous Academic Services at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Law in Edmonton, Alta., Menard assists both interested and qualified Aboriginal students and helps them achieve their goals of earning a legal education.

Yet from time to time her heart wanders west, back home to Prince George, and back to CNC where she first learned to develop the necessary study habits to not only to become a successful Aboriginal law student, but to thrive in the work environment after law school was finished.

Growing up in Prince George, Menard admits she wasn’t the best student at D.P. Todd secondary (and later Brentwood College in Mill Bay B.C., where she graduated in 1991). After going to college unsuccessfully on and off for three years in Victoria, B.C., she returned to Prince George in the mid ’90s to rediscover her northern B.C. roots and get back to living with nature.

“When I first started at CNC, I decided to take, at the most, four University Transfer Bachelor of Arts courses (a semester) and work on a part-time basis because I didn’t trust myself at passing in college, stumbling from my poor performance both in high school and at college,” she said from her office at the U of A’s Faculty of Law.

“At CNC I began to enjoy my professors that taught my Bachelor of Arts courses, I felt connected to them, and that was different from when I was down on the coast at college. Somehow there was a difference I felt at CNC; that either I was ready to learn, or there were very kind people around ready to teach me in a non judgmental way on subjects that (to my surprise) became interesting to me.”

While in her third year of post-secondary education (attending both CNC and UNBC at the same time), she decided to write the standardized Law School Admission Test and applied to several law schools in Western Canada. She was accepted at the University of Manitoba, the University of Saskatchewan and the University of British Columbia.

It’s a rare exception for a student who doesn’t possess an undergraduate degree to get into law school, especially one as prestigious as the University of British Columbia, Faculty of Law.

She chose UBC to be closer to Prince George just in case she became homesick, and after the spring and summer season of tree planting, left in the fall of 2001 for Vancouver. She wasn’t disappointed at all in the tough three years she endured.

“I began to feel empowered when I was going to law school, and I grew more confident in who I was when I started to learn about Aboriginal law,” said Menard, whose ancestral background includes Cree, Abenaki and Ojibwa. “I loved the feeling of justice and the glimmer of hope I got while I was learning the law. I began to realize that law was going to be a crucial tool to give voice to those who couldn’t find their voice, didn’t have a voice, or were silenced.”

Aboriginal law, whether you study it at law school, practice it as a lawyer, or if you sit on the judiciary, “is always a cutting edge subject because it is a new topic that courts and countries must consider on both a national and world-wide scale.”

When she graduated with her law degree in 2004, she returned to B.C.’s Interior and articled for Vanderburgh and Co., a small firm in Williams Lake.

While Aboriginal law wasn’t the main focus at the firm, her experience there led to working for a legal aid organization, she then began facilitating restorative justice circles; and then went on to treaty negotiations with the provincial and federal governments for the Williams Lake Indian Band.

“I assist the Aboriginal law students’ newly acquired professional legal reputation by having them interact with the legal community while they are at law school so they can make professional connections. Also, if students need any type of assistance, whether that be academic support, or just someone to talk to during the day, I am here.”

Menard refers to new statistics, which show there are an increasing number of law school applicants who are of Aboriginal (First Nation, Metis or Inuit) origin, which does not coincide with current statistics that Aboriginal people are dropping out of high school. “Somewhere along the line, Aboriginal students are going back to school, and going on to become successful post-secondary students, and beyond.”

Every year, of the 175 first-year seats available at the Faculty of Law, University of Alberta, 17 seats are reserved for Aboriginal students. This incoming 2010-11 academic year, there are 12 Aboriginal law candidates who were accepted, currently in first-year law, there are nine Aboriginal students; five second-year students and six will graduate this Spring 2010.

“We have a really rigorous program here at the U of A that is comprised of a lot of mandatory course work and we have built a solid reputation internationally and within the legal community that our students come out equipped to properly, efficiently and appropriately handle anything legally complex that is coming their way. We also have a very collegial school here whereby the students are very friendly, and although there is competition, it is friendly by nature,” said Menard. “Our Aboriginal students are doing an excellent job.”

The 20 students currently enrolled all come from a variety of First Nations – Dene, Chilcotin, Kooteney, Cree, Ogibway and Inuit; and Metis from the Metis Nation of Alberta.

Besides being a member of the Canadian Bar Association, Menard is also involved in the Indigenous Bar Association that provides networking for Aboriginal students and Indigenous law professors, legal practitioners’ and judges that can provide crucial mentoring from the local legal community to the national level.

“I love being in academia,” she said. “I have a lot of choices sitting where I am right now, so, for me it has become a very creative process here at the U of A. Also, interacting with students is very refreshing for me.”

As with every aspect of Aboriginal life, there’s also the cultural aspect, too.

Menard said she attends smudges and ceremonial events not only in Edmonton, but other First Nations celebrations outside the city.

Menard also sits on the U of A’s Faculty of Law’s Admissions Committee. Prospective students who want one of the 175 seats must, besides having a good Grade Point Average and solid LSAT scores she said, demonstrate leadership, multi-tasking, volunteering, and teamwork skills.

“Unfortunately, it is getting harder and harder to get into law school,” she said. “We are now trying to take a more holistic outlook at each student’s personal essay so we can get a wide variety of students in here each with different and complimentary skill sets that will add to the legal community on the whole.”

“I love reading the Aboriginal applicants’ personal essays. It’s inspiring for me to read about their journey. A lot of us have overcome so many hardships just to get to the door initially of law school. I will advise each and every person interested in law that you don’t have to be perfect to get into law school.”

“I wasn’t an ace student who could hide behind my books and shove my emotions away. I had to deal with my emotions and when life became unbearable, it was tough while balancing school and a job part-time. But you know what I decided to do no matter what? I decided to show up, no matter how I was feeling, or what was going on in my life, or how much of a failure I felt I was. And because I showed up, I learned and I overcame.”