Harry LaForme, Canada’s first Indigenous appellate judge, receives honorary degree

As a youth, Harry LaForme never considered the possibility that one day he might study law. As it turned out, he ended up transforming it.

Over a 40-year career, in which he became Canada’s first Indigenous appellate judge, LaForme broke professional barriers and helped reframe the discussion about Indigenous land rights and self-government in this country. As a judge, he also wrote a decision that led to same-sex marriage becoming legal in Ontario.

In recognition of his outstanding service to the nation as an exemplary advocate for Indigenous rights, land claims, education and self-government, Harry LaForme will receive a Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, from the University of Toronto June 23.

Also known as G’Najuwa Wawaskwene (powerful light in the sky), LaForme is Anishinabe of the Eagle Clan of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation – whose territory the university sits on. He will be the speaker at tomorrow’s virtual convocation ceremony.

Born in 1946, LaForme spent his early years on a reserve near Hagersville, southwest of Hamilton, Ont., where his father and grandfather were chiefs. When his father landed a job at General Motors in Buffalo, LaForme, his parents and four siblings moved there. He remembers experiencing racial tension in his childhood. “You’d do anything not to be an Indian,” he told the Globe and Mail in 2018, but found comfort in coaching his little brother’s basketball team, made up of inner-city youth.

“They were aboriginal kids, and they never hid it for a second from anybody,” he told the Globe. “They were as proud as could be of who they were.”

LaForme went to technical school and became an engineer, but then decided he wanted to do something to support Indigenous land claims and self-government. Learning about the law seemed like a logical place to start, he told graduating students. “Law, I believed, was critical to the future of Indigenous people in Canada and our relationship with it.”

He enrolled at Osgoode Hall Law School at 27 but, as he said in a Globe and Mail interview in 2004, he felt out of place. “After all those years of being told you are a second-class citizen, you never get rid of that feeling of inadequacy,” he said. “I’ve never gotten over it.”

After a brief stint at a commercial firm, he started his own practice specializing in Indigenous law – particularly matters related to the Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. While representing Indigenous interests in Canada and abroad, LaForme also headed up two commissions – one provincial and one federal – on the subject of Indigenous Peoples, and co-chaired an independent task force related to land claims.

In 1994, he was named to the Ontario Court of Justice (General Division). One of his most famous decisions came in 2002 when he was a member of a divisional court panel that found that denying same-sex couples the right to marry violated their equality rights. A year later, same-sex marriage was legalized in Ontario. Within hours, the first civil ceremony took place in a Toronto courthouse, and LaForme slipped in at the back to watch.

In 2004, he was appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal, becoming the first Indigenous judge in Canadian history to sit on an appellate court.

LaForme has said he is especially thankful for the recognition he has earned from Indigenous Peoples for his achievements. In 1997, he received the National Aboriginal Achievement Award in the area of law and justice. On three occasions, he has been presented with an Eagle Feather, symbolizing the virtues of honesty, integrity and respect.

Although he retired in 2018, LaForme still speaks on such topics as Indigenous issues, Indigenous law, criminal law, constitutional law and civil and human rights. “Aboriginal people have to ultimately be recognized for their rightful place in Canada,” he told the Globe and Mail in 2004. “Some day, I hope an aboriginal person will be prime minister. Some day, I hope an aboriginal person will be a premier of a province.”

In his speech to the Class of 2021 tomorrow – recorded prior to the horrifying discovery, in late May, of the bodies of 215 Indigenous children on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. – LaForme will describe how the history of Indigenous Peoples in Canada inspired his career decisions to switch out of engineering first, and then away from corporate law. “[Indigenous Peoples] were not like the settlers, but Canada said we needed to be. Solutions were explored. Cultural genocide was the favoured choice. This choice, we know, was horrifically wrong.

“This history was my focus in law. It inspired me. It was my passion. It was about me and about my people. It was personal. This history and the possible remedies and solutions to correct it was what I wanted to speak to. I wanted to be part of that change, not merely a hopeful observer…. I also knew my cultural imperative – to show that Indigenous people belonged; that they added value and a unique perspective to every space that made decisions about Canada.”

LaForme subsequently wrote a moving letter to U of T President Meric Gertler that reflected on the discovery of the 215 children who were taken from their families and not “permitted the opportunity to love, to be loved, to live out her or his Creator given potential and to actually pursue an education at any institute, other than in an institute of abomination.” 

Despite his grief, LaForme said he was called to affirm, support and celebrate today’s youth. The letter includes a passage LaForme says he would have liked to have shared with graduates had he been able to deliver his remarks in person:

“I have been given the opportunity to say to you, in a resounding way, ‘Well done! Be proud! Be as proud of yourselves as I am proud of you today!’

“Be grateful. Grateful for the opportunities this education gives you. Be grateful for those who came before you, those who walk beside you, and those who will come after you – all who played a part in bringing you to where you are today. Your achievements are their achievements too.

“And please, for your sake and for ours, please be oh so much better than we are. Be ever so different from us, choose a different way; a better way and then, and only then perhaps there can be greater hope for this world. And while I am here, please forgive us for what we have left to you to deal with and for failing to provide you with better role models to learn from. Be the role models you deserve and we desperately need.”

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