Billie Fortier

Building Pathways to Economic Reconciliation: Lawyer Billie Fortier Practices Hope For The Future

Becoming a lawyer wasn’t her plan, but it turned out to be the best one for Billie Fortier. In her mind, lawyers had to be a certain way but what she found out was that her own image of legal success could be found in her own reflection. Along the way to becoming a lawyer, she read stacks of books but what helped her connect to her clients the most was the story of her own life. 

Billie Fortier is from Fort McKay First Nation and she lives in Calgary, working as a corporate commercial lawyer at MLT Aikins. She also works in Aboriginal law, with Indigenous communities and their businesses across Canada. At work, she helps with general corporate commercial matters, setting up partnerships with third parties, businesses on and off reserve, corporate governance issues and buying and selling companies. She also gets to help the First Nations and Metis communities with governance issues like law and daily government challenges. 

Growing up, justice and social welfare issues were really important in her family. Her grandmother, a residential school survivor, started the first Indigenous-run group home for Indigenous youth in Canada after seeing how a new residential school system was emerging through child welfare. She created a space where children could celebrate their culture, attend ceremony, learn their languages, attend powwows and take pride in their identities. Foriter was raised by passionate, politically active people. 

After getting her undergraduate degree in international relations from the University of Calgary, Fortier worked her way up from being a receptionist to a consultant role at a regulatory consulting company. Reading environmental legislation all day and learning about the responsibilities of oil and gas companies to clean up their messes, she was inspired to apply to law school, jumping into it without ever having spoken to a lawyer. 

Most of her peers came from families with lawyers and had an ease with legal language that left her intimidated as someone who did not have that family history. She struggled with imposter syndrome as she made her way into a fast-paced and aggressive profession. At the time, she didn’t know there were many different types of law and ways to practice it.  

“I'd want to just remind everybody, that there's not one path.”  

Law school was academically challenging compared to undergraduate studies and she learned to study differently and more collaboratively. Her study partners helped her and she found solace in the Indigenous student centre. In her third year of law school, she got pregnant and spent her last year of school feeling unwell, managing her studies and pregnancy symptoms. Weeks after graduating, she gave birth. Her demanding year of articling before being called to the bar was delayed and even harder as a breastfeeding mother.

Articling can be full of pressure, perfectionism and almost tunnel vision, but a baby to love on was a blessing.  “I think she just actually helped in a way, just keeping me focused on what really matters, that family is really what matters at the end of the day,” she explains. 

During her first year of practicing law, she was intimidated by fellow lawyers, wondering if she was smart enough. She worked with a partner who worked with Indigenous communities whose traditional territories were being developed. That partner reassured her that her background would serve her well. 

While her clients had unique challenges, they shared common ground. “I had a unique understanding of what they were going through and how their land was being disturbed and the animals were being disturbed and the plants were being destroyed, and the water might have been contaminated… My community has been dealing with that for many years... I didn't have to be this perfect version I had in my mind of what a lawyer would be but there was so much value in who I already was, and the story I was already bringing. That gave me a lot of confidence that I had something unique to give to the clients, and that I could give them value that other students who were not raised with my family and my story would not have,” she explains.

To maintain her mental health, she carves out family time and time outside to be active to refill her cup. She nourishes her body and takes care of herself so she can do better work. Spending time in the mountains and nature brings her peace. 

Her advice for youth considering leaving home to go to school is to find a support system and maintain perspective. While school might be important for some, learning from elders and living traditionally is just as valid. She’s proud of the path she’s chosen and the impact she gets to make, but knows it isn’t the only path 

“I think it's so important that we just remind ourselves that success looks different for everybody.”

She invites youth considering law to reach out with questions or learn more about her story.  “I'm just so proud of that work that we're able to do, and that I'm able to play some part in that because that, to me, is breaking down those barriers of economic reconciliation and taking our rightful places in our local economies, and our economies even on a national scale. I think there have been so many roadblocks that have been put up over the years that have prevented Indigenous economies from blossoming and blocked our rightful place in the economy. I think that there's so much amazing progress being done and so it's just been really exciting. I'm really hopeful,” she shares. 

Billie Fortier never expected to become a lawyer or to do the work she does but she’s so glad she did. She had a picture in her mind of what a lawyer had to be but she learned that she could see her own version of legal success just by looking in a mirror. To become a lawyer, she studied many books but the one that has helped her connect the most has been her own story.

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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Key Parts

  • Career
  • Identity
    First Nations
    ,
    ,
  • Province/Territory
    Alberta
  • Date
    February 1, 2024
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