Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond: A Story of Determination and Reward

Reprinted with permission from
The Indigenous Times - Christmas Edition 1998 - pg. 13

Saskatoon - "I never in my wildest dreams believed I would one day become a judge," remarked Provincial Court Judge, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, at the Opportunities Workshop '98 banquet held recently in Saskatoon.

Turpel-Lafond grew up poor, with domestic violence and alcoholism in her home; she and her siblings suffered sexual abuse.

She decided early, however, that she wasn't about to let her background prevent her from realizing her dreams.

"We decided that we weren't going to become victims in life," stated Turpel-Lafond. "We were going to be survivors. We were going to be masters of our own destiny. We were going to be strong about it and move forward."

Turpel-Lafond believes that this is an important lesson for girls and women today, as they should never let themselves be set back, or accept second place.

"Women should never accept the back of the bus behind men. It is one of our traditions that there should be balance between men and women. That doesn't mean we should be always in front of men, but that there needs to be a balance. Women need to know that they can succeed in business, in law, in politics, or anything we put our minds to. This is a key message for First Nations' women, especially young women."

It is a motto she has used through out her life, and one that has paid considerable dividends.

Born of Cree/Scottish ancestry, Turpel-Lafond became the first Aboriginal woman to be named to the Saskatchewan bench, in March, 1998. She holds enviable academic credentials, that include a Bachelor of Arts from Carleton University, A Bachelor of Law from Osgoode Hall Law School, A Master's from Cambridge University, and a Doctorate from Harvard.

Turpel-Lafond has also run her own law practice in Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan, and served for a time as a professor of law at Dalhousie University. She has also lectured at the University of Toronto, the University of Notre Dame, and held the position of Aboriginal Scholar at the University of Saskatchewan in 1995-96.

She admits that as she has had to overcome many obstacles, as she is not only a women practicing law, but an Aboriginal women lawyer.

"There are lots of barriers to accepting women into that role, as it is very male dominated," stated Turpel-Lafond. "In fact, when I became pregnant with my daughter, Alphonsine, a very prominent chief, who will remain nameless, told me that now that you're pregnant, you can stop working and take care of your baby, because that's what women are supposed to do."

She points out that what young First Nation women need today are proper role models. She recalled that there was really no-one for her to look up to in her position, as she was the first judge appointed to bench. Turpel-Lafond also stressed the need for women to work together and never let "jealousy and competitiveness ever come between us." Aboriginal women, according to Turpel-Lafond, need to "take risks" and learn to stand on their own.

"Cree women are not shrinking violets, and we should use this strength in the professional world."

It is easy to be stirred by Turpel-Lafond's enthusiasm. When she tells women that "any dream [they] have [they] can realize," it is easy to believe her, as she so clearly demonstrates this idea, with the remarkable example of her own life.

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