A life built around the environment, community, and culture 

Elysia Petrone-Reitberger
As a lawyer and community member, Elysia Petrone-Reitberger (BA ’07, Gee-Gees Women’s Rowing ’04-’07) has dedicated her life to championing environmental protection and Indigenous governance. Her time at uOttawa helped spark her advocacy around both.

Connecting with nature and the land is of the utmost importance to Elysia Petrone-Reitberger (BA ’07, Gee-Gees Women’s Rowing ’04-’07), whether it’s as a parent, lawyer, environmental activist, or community member. Petrone-Reitberger is of mixed Italian, German, and Anishinaabe ancestry from Fort William First Nation, located on the northwestern shores of Gitchi Gami (Lake Superior) near Thunder Bay.  

Born and raised in northwestern Ontario, Petrone-Reitberger heard stories of her Italian grandmother growing and canning food and her Indigenous grandparents harvesting maple syrup from their territory each spring. She describes herself as a lifelong environmentalist, influenced both by these family connections and time spent outside hiking, boating, and swimming.  

In high school, Petrone-Reitberger took a month-long natural resource management course in the Costa Rican rainforest. “That course got me really interested in environmental protection and climate change,” she says, adding that these topics weren’t widely discussed at the time at her school or in her circles. 

Petrone-Reitberger enrolled in uOttawa’s bilingual environmental studies program to continue learning about these issues. There was also an element of family legacy at play—her mom Celina Reitberger had attended law school at the university in the 1970s. 

Her time at uOttawa solidified Petrone-Reitberger’s care and concern for the environment. She wrote essays about climate change, joined sustainability clubs, and watched films about environmental and Indigenous struggles as part of Cinema Politica, organized by the Faculty of Arts.  

In her second year, Petrone-Reitberger took an Indigenous women’s studies course taught by Indigenous activist and Algonquin Elder Claudette Commanda, today the first Indigenous chancellor of uOttawa. The course covered issues of state violence, colonialism, and systemic racism. The intersectionality of issues resonated with Petrone-Reitberger: “I’m of the belief that how women are treated runs parallel to how people are treating Mother Earth.” 

In her fourth year, her resource management class with professor Roger Needham took a field trip to a landfill on the Cataraqui River in Kingston. Petrone-Reitberger and her classmates got to meet with community activists, municipal politicians, water keepers, an environmental lawyer, and other stakeholders involved in the struggle around garbage polluting the river. This and other experiences at uOttawa inspired a new chapter of environmental activism for Petrone-Reitberger.  

Balancing professional and personal pursuits 

Environmental activism has been a theme in Petrone-Reitberger’s life since graduating from uOttawa.  

She completed a master’s degree in environmental studies at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, worked with environmental NGOs in Hamilton, and farmed in Ontario and Manitoba. Alongside fellow activists, Petrone-Reitberger led several successful campaigns, including events to protest the proposed Energy East pipeline along the Nipigon River in northwestern Ontario and calls for Lakehead and McMaster universities to divest from fossil fuels. 

In 2013, Petrone-Reitberger again moved back to Thunder Bay to join the inaugural cohort of law students at Lakehead University. The new law school focused on Indigenous law and serving small communities.  

It was a perfect fit. “I’ve always been an advocate for human and environmental rights and have kept pushing to work with First Nations communities to help where I can,” says Petrone-Reitberger, whose professional projects focus on Indigenous governance. That has included providing support to Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug in Treaty 9, on the implementation of their family law, and working with Rainy River First Nations to create and implement new band membership laws. 

Today, Petrone-Reitberger describes herself as a “lawyer who cares about the environment” rather than an environmental lawyer. Though she is open to providing pro bono advice to environmental groups, Petrone-Reitberger’s priority since 2019 has been her husband George Lone Elk and their two young children, Jackson and Rosalie.  

In summer, the family spends time swimming, picking berries and dancing at powwows. Each April they harvest maple syrup from the trees on Anemki Wajiw (Mount McKay), on Fort William First Nation, where they now live, just as Petrone-Reitberger’s ancestors did for time immemorial.  

“It feels great, doing things that you know your grandparents did with the same trees, in the same spot, in the same season,” says Petrone-Reitberger of the maple syrup harvest. “You walk up and collect your sap every day. It’s hard work, but I like that. It’s also a nice time to connect with people during community boils.” 

For now, Petrone-Reitberger says she has a good balance of work and family, and is firmly opposed to the hustle hard culture that can often be associated with private practice in the legal profession. 

Instead, the culture she’s more interested in connecting with is her own and instilling her appreciation of the environment in her children: “I want to raise the next generation of good, kind humans who give thanks for the water, the sun, the moon, and the land. Children who are aware of climate change and who are water protectors. I didn’t grow up entrenched in my culture and I want my children to experience that and to learn the language.” 

Family out tapping for maple syrup
Elysia's family out tapping for maple syrup.