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2024 WILL Awards Alberta Lifetime Achievement Award Winner
Eileen Sasakamoose IPC

I am a proud Indigenous Yellowknives Dene woman, from a family of 8 children. Born in Yellowknife, to Indigenous parents, I saw Yellowknife grow from some 1,000 residents to ten times that.  It has since more than doubled in size.  In early adulthood, I decided to move to Edmonton to pursue further studies and later decided to study law.  With encouragement from my friend, who later became my husband, I enrolled in law school at the University of Saskatchewan in 1984.  I found the study of law fascinating and was drawn to how the Canadian legal system impacted Indigenous peoples.

Shortly after graduation, I articled with Leonard (Tony) Mandamin, former Federal Court of Canada Justice, who agreed to take me on as his first articling student after I made a pitch he couldn’t resist.  That was the start of a long and rewarding legal career.

In 1988, I became the first Dene woman to become a lawyer when I was admitted to the Law Society of Alberta.  The following year, after completing the statutes exam in the NWT, Justice M. de Weerdt agreed to host a second bar admission ceremony in Yellowknife, to allow my friends and family living in Yellowknife to attend.

Shortly after my admission to the practicing bar, I became a founding director of the Indigenous Bar Association in 1988.  26 years later, in 2014, I was appointed Indigenous Peoples Counsel (IPC) by my mentors in the Indigenous Bar Association, a distinction I hold in high regard.

After 36 years as a general private practitioner, primarily in the service of Indigenous communities and First Nations people in a broad range of practice areas, including administrative law, business law, restorative justice, claims under the class action law suits for Indian Residential School, Indian Day School and First Nations Drinking water claims, family law, wills and estates and elder law,  I can see, on retrospect, how busy my private practice would become.

Early in my career, I spent ten years tutoring and instructing in Athabasca University’s legal studies courses, in particular, the law and labour relations, administrative law, commercial law, and municipal law, which allowed me  teach in many Indigenous communities.

Later, in 2007 and then in 2014, I was honourerd to article two students, who are currently practicing members of the Alberta bar, Koren Lightning-Earle and Sherri-Anne Turner.

Recently, in my role as technical advisor to an Indigenous Women’s Advisory group, I worked in a front-line capacity, addressing Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) issues, and I see how the tragic loss of life is continuing, unabated.  More needs to be done to keep Indigenous women safe, to keep Indigenous families intact, to bring back our languages, to strengthen our culture, values and traditions and to reverse the ill-effects of the Indian Residential School era.

My goal in life and in my work has been to advance the cause of Indigenous women, children, the elderly and the disabled.  While there is a huge demand for legal services, few Indigenous clients have access to resources to pay for the legal services they desperately need.   I believe that, by working together, we in the legal profession, can help to reverse the legacy of colonial policies, practices and laws that have hampered Indigenous Peoples’ survival and that by working collaboratively, we can make a positive impact on the lives of Indigenous Peoples.

I owe a special debt of gratitude to the many elders, including the late Harvey Tootoosis, my mentor, and  many women who have been a huge support to me over the years.  Without the support of my family and friends, especially my husband, Leo, and our two boys, Joshua, 29 and Matthew, 23, who have sacrificed much for my career, I would not have become the person I am today.