Success of Nunavut Law Program will leave lasting legacy, says dean

Nuka Olsen-Hakongak among graduates now practicing in home communities

By Paul Sinkewicz

Nuka Olsen-Hakongak called it cathartic when she was called to the bar in front of family and friends this past autumn.

She swore an oath, signed a document, and shook the hand of the presiding circuit court judge. Then she let out a long-held breath.

The 28-year-old Inuk lawyer was completing an academic journey that began five years earlier when she joined the Nunavut Law Program.

“Knowing I had worked all those years to make it to that moment was exciting,” Olsen-Hakongak said. “I got emotional.”

The journey actually began much earlier, when a high school elective class spurred her fascination with the law. A teacher new to her high school in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, offered a Grade 10 Legal Studies course.

“It was a very small class, but I really liked it, and we had a local lawyer who lives in Nunavut come to speak,” she said. “So, it kind of started there, but I didn’t really look at law until I was thinking about going back to school when I was 21.”

At about that time a new program aimed at providing Nunavut-based legal education for Nunavummiut was being created. The Nunavut Law Program was launched in September 2017 as a partnership between the Government of Nunavut, Nunavut Arctic College, and the College of Law, University of Saskatchewan.

Olsen-Hakongak learned that students who completed the four-year program would be awarded a USask Juris Doctor (J.D.) law degree, joining the other Saskatoon trained graduates in the class of 2021.

With that, Olsen-Hakongak’s journey in the law began.

It would mean travelling 3,161 km from Cambridge Bay (passing through Yellowknife, NWT and Rankin Inlet, NU) to the eastern side of Nunavut to study in the capital city of Iqaluit where she would live while studying.

Along with her, came 24 other students from all corners of the vast territory. They hailed from places like Pangnirtung, on the north-east coast, Resolute, on remote Cornwallis Island, Rankin Inlet, on the coast of Hudson Bay, and Arviat, near the Manitoba border. For some of them, travelling to Iqaluit was a two-day effort.

The academic journey upon which Olsen-Hakongak was embarking would be challenging for any new law student, but for her, it also meant leaving behind the life she loved for a significant period of time.

“I missed my family and my favourite fishing spots; seeing my family every day and doing things like fetching water or ice from the lake behind town or the river; helping my Dad unload his alliaq (sled) after a hunt and picking up my niece and nephew from school and daycare – all the things that bring me joy.”

Olsen-Hakongak graduated in the spring of 2021 and articled with the Legal Services Board of Nunavut (LSB) at two of their regional clinics, Maliganik Tukisiniarvik and the Kitikmeot Law Centre.

With her call to the bar, Olsen-Hakongak has become one of the many success stories of the Nunavut Law Program. Her hard-won knowledge in the law is now serving her home community and setting an example for young people who may want to someday follow in her footsteps.

“I work in civil litigation right now, but this is just the starting point. I don’t know where I’ll end up,” she said. “My practice is quite broad. Anything that doesn’t fit within a family matter or a criminal matter is what I deal with. It can include employment, housing, police misconduct, guardianship matters. It really varies on the day. Our scope is very broad.”

The variety of the job is one of the key perks she anticipated when interviewing with the LSB for a staff lawyer position.

“In law you are always learning and keeping up with changes, but my interest in, and aptitude for, continued learning was one of the reasons for my interest in civil law,” she said.

Martin Phillipson, Dean of the USask College of Law, said Olsen-Hakongak is the epitome of the students from that program -- deeply committed to community, hard-working, and resourceful.

“I really look forward to seeing what these students do in the long term and how successful they become,” he said.

Of the original 25 students, 21 others graduated with Olsen-Hakongak, and two out of those graduated with Great Distinction, putting them in the top five per cent of the 142-person class.

The Nunavut Law Program was structured a little differently from the traditional three-year JD program. It included an introductory year with exposure to things like the Nunavut land claims agreement, an emphasis on cultural experiences and traditional Inuk laws, and connections to elders who came to speak to the future lawyers.

“The thing about the program was not just that we graduated 22 out of 25 people, but a significant majority of them are Inuk, speak Inuktitut, and they will fundamentally transform the legal system and the delivery of legal services in Nunavut,” said Phillipson.

Eight of the graduates of the Nunavut Law Program have already been called to the bar, with more ceremonies coming up soon, and all but two of the graduates currently plan to stay in Nunavut to work.

“Significantly increasing the number of lawyers who speak Inuktitut is a game changer,” said Phillipson. “That you can be addressed in your own language and bring Inuk cultural values into things like Crown prosecution, into court work, it’s amazing. They’ll have a significant legacy, and they’ll change the system for sure.”

Olsen-Hakongak is gratified to be helping her neighbours navigate the legal resources they need in the close-knit community of 1,800 as well as other Nunavummiut coming to Nunavut Legal Aid for assistance.

“I’ve had to set strong boundaries within my practice, but I’m happy to be a presence in my community and for my community members to know that if you want to be a part of the legal profession, you can do that.”

She says she is now focused on excelling in her burgeoning law career and consolidating her first year of practice while still enjoying traditional hobbies outside of work and finding the work-life balance everyone strives for.

It’s just the next step in a journey that began in a high school classroom all those years ago.