Interview with Caitlin Tolley, Algonquin Anishinaabe Lawyer

  • May 12, 2021
  • Wendy Parkes, LL.B.

Wendy Parkes, LL.B., a member of the OBA Aboriginal Law Section Executive and assistant professor at the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law, Lakehead University, interviews Caitlin Tolley, Algonquin Anishinaabe lawyer who works in MAG's Indigenous Justice Division.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up on my reserve in Kitigan Zibi. Kitigan Zibi is an Algonquin reserve located about 130 kilometers north of Ottawa. I graduated high school on reserve and then moved to the National Capital Region to pursue my post-secondary education.

Growing up on reserve, I gained a strong sense of my identity as an Algonquin Anishinaabe. Those teachings and values that I learned at a young age are instilled in me today. Indigenous law and traditional knowledge inform and guide my work as a lawyer.

What inspired you to go into the field of law?

While I was pursuing my undergraduate degree at the University of Ottawa, I was volunteering on Indigenous youth leadership initiatives. At the time I was serving my community as an elected Band Councillor. I was also on the Assembly of First Nations National Youth Council.  

Around this same time, the Idle No More Movement was taking place across Canada. I was inspired to pursue a law degree by the grassroots movement that stood for respecting Indigenous sovereignty, rights and recognition.  

I knew that I wanted to pursue higher education and a law degree seemed like the best option for learning Canadian law and increasing my awareness and understanding of Aboriginal rights in Canada, as identified in the Constitution.

I recognize that there is a strong difference between Aboriginal and Indigenous rights. Aboriginal rights derive from colonial legal documents and case law that is rooted in the Canadian common law. Indigenous rights are inherent and collective rights that arise from and belong to each community and First Nation across the country.

What law school did you go to and when did you graduate? What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

I graduated from the University of Ottawa – Faculty of Common Law - with my Juris Doctor in 2017. During law school, I completed the Intensive Program in Aboriginal Lands, Resources, and Governments from Osgoode Hall Law School at York University.

As part of the Intensive Program, I completed a legal internship working in the office of the Honourable Murray Sinclair’s office (former member of the Canadian Senate).

Prior to starting law school, I also completed the Program of Legal Studies for Native People (“PSLNP”), as it was called at the time, at the University of Saskatchewan.

Law school is a lot of hard work and so is practicing as a lawyer.

I faced many challenges along the way; however when I encountered roadblocks I always reached out to my professors, legal mentors or support staff at the law school.

It was important for me to always find a way to succeed even though there were challenging moments. When challenging times arise, it is crucial to reach out to your support network to find solutions.

Where did you complete your Articling as part of the Lawyer Licensing Process?

After I graduated from law school, I moved to Toronto to complete my lawyer licensing requirements. I articled in-house at the Royal Bank of Canada in the financial district.

I completed legal rotations in the Corporate Secretary’s Department, Capital Markets, Canadian Banking and Wealth Management. I also completed a litigation secondment at Dentons Canada LLP. I gained legal experience working on Indigenous banking initiatives internally at RBC.

I was able to work with the National Indigenous Financial Services Team. While I was working at RBC Law Group, I volunteered with Level Justice, which is a Canadian charitable organization that works with Indigenous Youth through outreach initiatives and provides legal education workshops to high school students.

Can you tell us about your current work?

As legal counsel with the Indigenous Justice Division in the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General work on a legal team of eleven lawyers that manages the provision of legal services as it relates to Indigenous justice matters.

The legal team also works to implement the First Nations Representation on Ontario Juries Report recommendations and manages Indigenous legal issues central to the Division.

The Indigenous Justice Division is committed to building strong and respectful relationships with Indigenous communities in order to improve trust in, and understanding of, the justice system.

What is the importance of mentorship? Who were your mentors?

The first Indigenous lawyer that I met was Jodie-Lynn Waddilove, who is an Anishinabe (Ojibway) and Lenape (Delaware) lawyer from southern Ontario.

Jodie-Lynn came to my reserve and gave a presentation at my high school.

I remember being so inspired by an educated Indigenous woman who was practicing law. I maintained in contact with her over the years and she has since become a friend and mentor.

In 2019, Jodie-Lynn was appointed to the Ontario Court of Justice. Justice Waddilove was assigned to Barrie.

I believe that having legal mentors and positive role models in the legal profession are key to inspiring the next generation of Indigenous youth.  

As I navigate working at the Indigenous Justice Division, I am grateful for the guidance and mentorship of my Legal Director, Kirsten Manley-Casimir. Kirsten is a thoughtful and prominent leader.

I am grateful for the opportunity to work under her guidance and the leadership of the Assistant Deputy Attorney General, Kimberly Murray at the Indigenous Justice Division.

What advice would you give to aspiring Indigenous lawyers?

I also would tell them to do their research on the different law schools and the programs that they offer.

I would encourage them to reach out to Indigenous and non-Indigenous lawyers and ask them questions to gain a better sense of the type of legal work that lawyers do on a day to day basis. As each lawyer may have a practice in different areas of the lawyer.

It is also important to decide if becoming a lawyer is truly what you want to do, as this will entail many years of hard work. If going to law school and becoming a lawyer is your dream, then do not give up on it.

What are your interests outside of law?

Prior the pandemic, I would attend community powwow’s and gatherings. I also enjoyed visiting art galleries and trying new restaurants.

However, ever since lockdown was implemented in Toronto beginning in March 2020, I’ve  appreciated going for long walks along the Toronto harbourfront with my Dutch Shepherd and spending as much time outdoors.

About Caitlin Tolley

Caitlin Tolley is an Algonquin Anishinaabe lawyer from Kitigan Zibi, Quebec. She is legal counsel with the Indigenous Justice Division, Ministry of the Attorney General, Ontario.

Caitlin was called to the Ontario Bar in 2019 after completing her Articling requirements and working in the legal department of the Royal Bank of Canada in Toronto. In 2018, Caitlin was recognized by the Public Policy Forum as the “Emerging Leader of the Year.”

Caitlin maintains her culture through ceremony, powwows and honouring teachings passed on to her. Her long-term objective is to make a difference in the lives of Indigenous people through legal advocacy. 

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