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Canada’s newest law school

Canada’s first new law school in more than three decades opens at Thompson Rivers University in the B.C. interior.

By TIM JOHNSON | MAR 05 2012
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An aerial view of Kamloops, BC.

It took more than three decades, but Canada finally has a new law school. When the last one opened its doors, back in 1978 at Université de Moncton, students wrote essays by hand with pen and paper, music lovers had to settle for 8-tracks or cassette tapes – and Thompson Rivers University didn’t yet exist (at least, not in its current form; it was founded in 1970 as community college and became TRU in 2004). Now this Kamloops-based university is playing host to the first founding class of law students in 33 years.

It’s been a long time coming, says Chris Axworthy, the school’s founding dean, who meets with me in his brightly lit office soon after my arrival for a visit to TRU. Professor Axworthy notes that student demand for spaces in Canadian law schools was becoming overwhelming and that Canada had fallen behind nations like Australia and the United States in providing enough schools to keep pace. A new law faculty was needed and, after a period of low-key lobbying that Professor Axworthy refers to as “quiet diplomacy,” TRU brought that new school to Kamloops.

Once the wheels were in motion, Professor Axworthy remembers that they moved extremely fast. “We went from zero to open in just 16 months,” he says.

Professor Axworthy himself, drawn by the opportunity to build a brand-new school from the ground up, came to Kamloops with a rather impressive pedigree – an academic career teaching law at various institutions, founding executive director for the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives at the University of Saskatchewan, dean of Robson Hall, the University of Manitoba’s law faculty, plus a stretch in politics that included time as a federal MP and later as Saskatchewan’s attorney general and minister of justice.

The school partnered with the University of Calgary to develop its curriculum, a move that Professor Axworthy says was purely a matter of practicality – adopting U of C’s curriculum and academic rules saved TRU from reinventing the wheel. It also made sense since Kathleen Scherf, TRU’s president at the time, was formerly a dean at U of C and had many connections there.

“I was impressed with the enthusiasm of people here. But I had no idea what a huge challenge it would be,” says Professor Axworthy, noting that the school successfully met the mandate of hiring a fresh slate of faculty, setting up classrooms and establishing protocols in time for the doors to open this past September.

The school’s location in Kamloops – deep in the B.C. interior, 350 km northeast of Vancouver – is both a blessing and a curse. While the vast majority of Canadian law schools are situated in larger cities, close to big firms and large courthouses and the abundant clerking and co-op opportunities that come with them, being in a smaller centre does have its advantages, suggests Professor Axworthy.

“For us, we have to make a plus out of being smaller,” he says. One key example is that students here have the opportunity to rub elbows on a fairly regular basis with all strata of the local legal community, from storefront lawyers up to provincial Supreme Court justices. Many members of the local bar are volunteering time to serve as mentors, and students also get to have close contact with faculty, including Professor Axworthy. “The first week, all the students came to my house for pizza. That just can’t happen in the bigger schools,” he says with a smile.

Seen from the air, two things about Kamloops are most striking. First are the northern and southern arms of the Thompson River, a mighty Western waterway that brings together its two limbs near the centre of town – two wide, muddy, rolling rivers blending together into one. The second is the rivers’ namesake university, a series of modern buildings arranged atop a soaring promontory which overlooks the city and the rugged peaks of Mount Peter and Mount Paul just beyond.

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The firms of Diamond Schmitt Architects and Stantec won the bid for the renovation thanks to their striking design, seen here in this exterior view.

In such a picturesque place as Kamloops, it’s not surprising that a number of the buildings at TRU seek to bring the outdoors inside, and the newly built House of Learning – the law faculty’s temporary home – is a prime example, a structure built to LEED gold-standard specifications, with stairs covered in locally sourced slate, a roof planted with grass, and giant windows that pull in the sunshine and afford even the sleepiest student stunning views out over the valley. The law faculty will eventually move into the campus’s Old Main building, which is going through a major renovation and a redesign that includes an undulating roofline meant to mirror the Kamloops horizon.

I meet with a handful of the law school’s first intake of 75 students in a quiet alcove and, although they’ve only been here a few months, they note that they’ve already noticed some of the advantages Professor Axworthy spoke about. “I’ve been to a bar here a couple of times and lawyers I met at orientation have come up to me and know my name. I don’t imagine that happens very much in Vancouver or Calgary,” says Austin Paladeau, a shaggy-haired 25-year-old student from Calgary.

Jay Michi, president of the TRU Society of Law Students, agrees, noting that he has already met two or three judges and is on a first-name basis with at least a dozen lawyers. “It narrows the gap between the theoretical academic study of law and getting a sense of the practical,” he says. He adds that the quality of life in Kamloops is also an estimable thing, noting that he’s had opportunities to take advantage of the many recreational pursuits that are readily available here, and that the natural beauty of the area is hard to match.

As if to prove his point, Mr. Michi shows me a picture he took with his Blackberry from his front porch, a shot of Mount Peter and Mount Paul with a double rainbow in front. “Whenever my eyes glaze over from whatever I’m reading,” he says, “I just go outside and take a deep breath and look at this.”

That’s music to the ears of someone like Frank Quinn, a long-time Kamloops resident, former member of the TRU board and a bankruptcy and insolvency lawyer in town. One of the primary goals in locating the new law school in Kamloops was to attract new attorneys to the area and entice them to settle here or in other small towns and cities nearby. Just as smaller communities struggle to maintain sufficient numbers of doctors, they often face the same challenges when it comes to attorneys.

“We’re losing lawyers at an alarming rate. About 60 percent of the Kamloops bar is over the age of 50,” he says. And while Mr. Quinn jokes that some may not see the drawbacks of having fewer lawyers around, he notes that legal practitioners are essential to the vital functioning of any community. “When you lose that foundation of skilled advisers, it doesn’t take very long before you start to lose every other element of business that makes a community work,” he says. “One of the pillars of an economy are professionals.”

Mr. Quinn would be happy to hear that a number of the students are already thinking about laying down roots in Kamloops, including Mr. Michi, who has moved to the city on a permanent basis, as well as Mr. Paladeau. “Before I came here, I never had any thoughts about practising in Kamloops,” says Mr. Paladeau. “Now, having been here, if I was offered a job, I would consider it. It’s a nice place, the people are great, and it’s disabused me of the notion that you can’t work as a lawyer in a small city.”

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The redesigned building will have 40,000 square feet of new learning space for the law faculty as well as common space for all TRU students.

And given the fact that TRU hopes to train a new generation of local lawyers, it makes sense that the curriculum here reflects the needs and issues that attorneys in the B.C. interior would likely encounter. Two primary areas of study include aboriginal law and issues related to natural resources, areas with obvious connections to each other.

Sharon Mascher, one of the university’s new faculty members, completed her legal training at the University of Calgary, practised in nearby Kelowna and then taught environmental law in New Zealand and Australia before coming to TRU. She observes that the school’s location brings issues of the environment and related industries, such as timber and mining, into close focus. “It makes very immediate those issues – how we manage our needs, land-use planning and incorporating environmental sustainability into our decision-making.”

Professor Mascher says she intends to integrate questions of Aboriginal title into her course material on property law. She adds that Kamloops’ close proximity to a number of First Nations communities presents unique opportunities for practical connections. “Hopefully we can develop some relationships, which will really benefit our faculty and students and perhaps the communities as well.”

In the end, notes TRU President Alan Shaver, the lynchpin of all these elements is the matter of access. This, above all, is something provided by the new law school. Lawyer jokes aside, more Canadian attorneys practising law in Canada is a good thing for everyone in this country.  “Canadians were leaving the country in order to get a legal education – there were hundreds of Canadians going abroad every year,” he says, noting that at least one university in Australia had adjusted its curriculum to teach Canadian law. “This is about access – both access by Canadians to get a legal education and access to legal advice,” he says. “I’m hoping that we’re an icebreaker here, and that we’ll see more changes like this in the future.”

While Dr. Shaver used the analogy of an icebreaker, as I take one last look around the TRU campus I’m reminded more of a beachhead, or maybe an outpost – a place where students can get a high-quality legal education here in the land of rugged mountains and mighty rivers.

Tim Johnson is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.

A new school, too, for Northern Ontario

Following hot on the heels of the new faculty of law at Thompson Rivers University, Ontario’s Lakehead University is also scheduled to open the doors on a brand-new law school in 2013 – the first new law faculty in that province in more than 40 years. It’s a prize the Thunder Bay university has had its eyes trained upon for quite some time, with the first steps taken more than six years ago. That’s when officials from both the Nishnawbe-Aski First Nation and the County and District Law Presidents’ Association approached Lakehead about the prospect of a new law school.

Brian Stevenson, Lakehead’s president, notes that the school’s location alone makes it an exciting prospect. “For us, the uniqueness is that we exist in the North. There’s no other law school in Ontario within 1,500 kilometers. This is a law school that will serve the vast region from North Bay to Kenora.” Like TRU, Lakehead plans to focus on issues of importance to the region and local communities, including First Nations law. Dr. Stevenson says that the school will actively recruit students from the North, and he hopes that Lakehead’s very high percentage of aboriginal students – 12 percent and rising – will be reflected in the composition of the law school’s student body.

Working from the model established by the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (a joint initiative of Lakehead and Laurentian University), the law school, he predicts, will help build a sturdy legal infrastructure throughout the North, similar to what NOSM has done for medicine. Courses will focus on equipping new graduates to practise in small communities in single-operator or very small law firms. “Many communities are not fully serviced, and one of our goals is to allow our graduates to establish law practices in small communities in the North,” says Dr. Stevenson.

He envisages a faculty complement and student body that are very involved in surrounding First Nations communities, with significant back and forth – members of the law school community branching out and members of First Nations communities coming in, to share their experiences. Like TRU, Lakehead’s law school will specialize in natural resource law, including forestry, mining, hydroelectric power and eco-tourism.

Much work still remains, including completing the renovations on the historic high-school building that will house the law school and hiring a founding dean. But Dr. Stevenson is eager to welcome the first intake of 55 students in September 2013, turning a vision into a Northern reality. “We’re putting together the twigs for the fire, and we’re going to get the embers going,” he says, “and once we get that fire going, it will take on a life of its own.”

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  1. Lisa Ferguson / August 20, 2012 at 23:31

    Are you still accepting applications for this fall 2013?

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