Learning today, leading tomorrow

Posted on Sunday, June 18, 2017

Caitlin Tolley is working as parliamentary research assistant to Senator Murray Sinclair until she starts an articling position in Toronto in July.

Spring Convocation 2017: Decisive moments

Caitlin Tolley (BSocSc ’14, JD ’17) is an Algonquin from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation, located near Maniwaki, Quebec, about 90 minutes from Ottawa. She says studying at uOttawa has opened many doors.

Maintaining her culture and traditions is important to Caitlin Tolley, a proud jingle dress dancer.

I chose to study at the University of Ottawa for both my political science and law degrees because of the unique opportunities that I knew could occur here. I also felt a duty to learn and to work on the territory my ancestors come from. They knew the importance of Ottawa long before the settlers arrived.

When I was 21, I was elected to serve a term on my reserve’s band council. Being on the council at a young age, I realized I had a lot more learning to do. In Algonquin, we say “kikinendam nongom, niganin wabang,” which means “learn today and lead tomorrow.” That’s when I made the decision to pursue a law degree. And it made practical sense to stay in Ottawa, where I could be at the centre of legal and political happenings in this country while remaining close to my community.

I often encourage other Indigenous youth who are considering higher education to come to Ottawa and, in particular, to this university. If you like politicking, if you want to push for change, this is where you want to be. Studying at uOttawa allowed me to be right downtown where all the action is.

While doing my undergraduate degree, I did some volunteer work with the Assembly of First Nations and sat on the AFN National Youth Council. Dipping my toes into Indigenous politics in Ottawa sparked a keener interest in policy, Indigenous advocacy and legal issues, and led to the career path I’m on.

During my law degree, I often visited the Supreme Court to observe cases. I found many other amazing opportunities in this city that I would not have had if I’d gone to law school elsewhere. Last year, I was selected by the U.S. embassy to take part in their International Visitor Leadership Program, which involved going to the States for three weeks and doing some work on Indigenous governance. And I’ve just been in Hawaii for three weeks with Fulbright Canada, which funded students to go and learn about issues facing native Hawaiians.

As part of my law degree, I also had the chance to work full time for four months as a legal intern in the office of Senator Murray Sinclair. So I’ve had the greatest mentor on the planet — he is very inspiring. Now I’m off to Toronto soon to take up another great opportunity, to article for a year at the Royal Bank of Canada. Working in the financial sector on Bay Street will be different, but I believe we need Indigenous lawyers who know all areas of the law. My long-term objective is to make an impact on the lives of Indigenous people, in whatever capacity that may be.

Caitlin Tolley offers some tips for other Indigenous youth considering law school.

On June 21, 2016 (National Aboriginal Day), Caitlin Tolley was one of 12 Indigenous youth leaders invited to address the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples.

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