From the Forest to the Courts: Jeremy McKay Fights Legal Battles to Find Peace
His work history is a circle that began and came back around to the forests in his community. As a teen working on reserve in the summer, Jeremy McKay would gather the stories of traditional knowledge keepers, elders, medicine pickers and hunters to find out how they use their traditional territory and how logging has impacted their ability to exercise their Indigenous and treaty rights. Now a lawyer, he’s working with his first nation on a project relating to the duty to consult First Nations and the forest industry in his traditional territory.
McKay is a member of the Pine Creek First Nation who has lived in Winnipeg for over a decade. He grew up living on and off reserve, moving between his home community and Calgary. In school, he got by but wasn’t a straight A student. His parents encouraged him to finish high school and go to university, never letting him skip school without reason.
Looking back, he wishes he worked harder, though he was committed to seeing his education through. After high school, he went onto the University of Manitoba. Unsure of what exactly he wanted to do, he took the business program prerequisites and got into their business program, then continued on to law school to become a practicing lawyer.
Growing up, he had a lot of support from his family which helped him overcome challenges. “I just think one of the things that is so remarkable about the university experience is it teaches you about yourself, and the best way for you to overcome different challenges. You're faced with new challenges every year, and you develop the skill set to navigate those things. By the end of it, I found anyway, I was more confident in myself to be able to overcome whatever was facing me. I've taken that confidence into my professional career. I think it's allowed me to be successful,” McKay reflects.
“You have to put in that time and do what can be difficult at times to support your family.”
When he thinks about what inspires him, he thinks of his parents. His dad was a hardworking construction worker who worked long days, weekends and holidays. McKay’s mother was elected as a band councillor in his first nation when he went off to university. Dinner conversation in McKay’s home often revolved around how the family could contribute to the well being of their first nation.
“Right from the very beginning, I was immersed in those types of discussions and I always was looking for ways to get an education so that I, too, could participate in that and try and help my communities as much as I could,” he recalls. These days he talks to his mom every day and he reports to her along with the rest of Chief and council.
Working as a lawyer feeds McKay’s quest for knowledge. “I just love learning new things every day,” he smiles. Always looking for new angles and new areas of law, he gets excited with new projects and clients and for the new developments that come from long term clients. All the changes and opportunities to learn keep him enthusiastic about his work.
A civil litigator, he helps clients involved in the courts, but doesn’t practice criminal or family law. He focuses on constitutional and human rights law, construction litigation, First Nation and treaty rights. He represents First Nation communities or First Nation individuals when they sue the federal government or the provincial government over whether a particular decision is constitutional or not.
Often, McKay spends all day reading and writing, researching to understand cases better so he can give better advice. He meets with the Chief and Council of the First Nation communities he represents in their communities and sometimes goes to court to argue cases. Being in court is his favourite, though 95% of his time is spent preparing for those moments.
His advice for a young, Indigenous person who's considering going into law school is “make sure that your reading and writing skills are the best they can be.” His own skills in that area weren’t great when he started but he’s refined them over time and he knows others can too if they aren’t strong when they start their journey.
“Work on the confidence in yourself to overcome challenges, because challenges, whether they're academic or personal, will confront you. Have the confidence in yourself that you'll be able to figure it out. I think that's the most important advice I can give to any young person wanting to pursue a career like I have,” he continues.
To stay grounded, he takes care of himself physically by exercising and eating well. “I rely heavily on cultural activities to be able to keep me calm, and to keep me focused, and to keep me high performing in the workplace. All of that adds up, and it's super important,” he explains.
His hopes for the future are aspirational. “I want to keep becoming a better and better lawyer, and I want to keep contributing to my First Nation. Those are my two Northstars,” he shares. One day he would like to teach in a university or college setting.
Mentorship is something McKay considers to be a game changer in my development and he’s thankful for strong mentorship in his legal practice. “It's really the reason why I'm so happy where I am, because I recognize that there's people who have skills that I want to learn and they're willing to share them with me. I think whenever you find someone or find a workplace that has that, that's really all you can ask for as a young professional,” he continues.
His work history is a circle that began and came back around to the forests in his community. Jeremy McKay started off asking questions in his community about how people interacted with the land and now he works to advance important legal matters relating to the duty to consult. Encouraged by and working alongside his family who taught him to work hard and give back, he loves time spent arguing in court so others can continue finding peace on the land.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.