When Legal Dreams Take Flight: An Inuk Lawyer to Be Inspires
From the airport to law school, Nuka Olsen-Hakongak has been on a journey. Once a flight attendant, she’s making her way to a new destination: a career in law. Her first name means younger sibling or younger sister in Inuinnaqtun/Inuktitut. She was born in Yellowknife, raised in Cambridge Bay and has lived in Iqaluit for five years now. She moved there for the Nunavut law program after completing the Social Services Worker Program.
She’s almost done her year of articling post-law school and hopes to be called to the Bar sometime this summer. While she was excited to find her educational path, it took some time to chart a course there and get off the ground. “Going back to school was hard. When I graduated high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was not interested in college or university right off the bat,” she remembers, thinking back to going back to school at the age of 21.
In between, she did customer service, ramp and cargo at First Air where she first started as a summer student, then moved to the Department of Education for the Government of Nunavut. Olsen-Hakongak upgraded her education in Edmonton, then worked as a flight attendant with Canadian North. She traveled between Edmonton and Cambridge Bay and told herself, "I want to work at the airline for maybe five years, experience this lifestyle and this career, and then get serious about thinking about what I want to do and going back to school."
That timeline accelerated after she was laid off just two years later, forcing her to disembark from her tourism career and head back to school ahead of schedule. It was a rocky “landing” for Olsen-Hakongak. "I had a car. I was renting a condo on my own and had a really nice routine. I would go up to Cambridge from Edmonton quite often to visit my family. I liked that lifestyle of being South but could be in Nunavut with my work quite often and on weekends on my own. I saw the email saying I had been laid off and given my two weeks notice. I went home and I just thought, 'What do I do now?'" she recalls.
Even as an Inuk person raised in the North, she didn’t qualify for post secondary education assistance because she lost her residency status living in Edmonton and was considered an Albertan. Regardless, she was eager to spend time with family, going hunting with her dad, spending time fishing and being on the land. That love of nature had her considering studying environment technology but she was intrigued by the Social Services worker program pamphlets. It was a match for her work experience and she didn’t have to leave her home community so she went for it.
Student life was a big adjustment between time management, scheduling, homework and learning about her community’s social history and lack of resources. Later, moving from a class of ten students at NAC to 25 in her law program, it felt like a much bigger group and a different experience altogether. Talking with family, friends, and instructors helped.
“Law school is a different kind of learning. Sometimes I joke about how I feel like my brain was taken out and molded differently and then thrown back in.” The time management demands greater because of all the reading and she got a tutor to help her through property law with harder to digest theories and cases. The program had an extra year of studies for legal research, writing courses, learning about the Nunavut agreement, Nunavut’s history and government relations.
Her dean recommended treating it like a 9-5 to maintain balance. That lets her spend time with her dogs, get outside and stay active skiing, work out and spend time with friends and on hobbies. “Law school is a job but it's not my whole life. I have a life outside of this,” she reflects.
If she could give her younger self advice, it would be to listen to her parents and mentors. “My mom always said ‘grades don't define you’, which really helped me in my post secondary studies,” she shares. Her family, niece and nephew inspire her, as does the younger generation. “I think about so many wonderful kids, my niece and nephew and their generation, growing up, and the work that's being done in their territory now has to reflect how that will impact their lives in 20 years,” she muses.
When it comes to Inuit youth considering leaving home for work or school, she offers her words of wisdom, “Your home will always be there. My dad always told me, ‘your home will always be here. Cambridge Bay is not going anywhere.’ It's good to venture off and experience life, either in another community or a city or in a bigger city, and see what fits your lifestyle and what you enjoy.” She recommends giving it your best shot because you can always come home. Olsen-Hakongak always thought if she left she wouldn’t return but she did. After five years in Iqaluit, it feels like home, too, and she’s comfortable in the North.
Nuka Olsen-Hakongak’s journey from the airport to law school has been one of coming home and finding her footing. Learning new things and taking care of herself, she’s enjoying life in the North, propelled by the spirit of the youth in her community. It might not have happened the way she expected, but she’s found a way for her dreams to take flight.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
December 2022 Updates: Nuka completed her articles in June and was called to the bar on September 14, 2022. She has now relocated home to the Kitikmeot region.
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.