Cree/Dene woman prepares to clerk for Supreme Court’s 1st Indigenous justice

Casey Caines wasn’t sure when to expect the call telling her whether she’d be heading to the Supreme Court of Canada to work as a law clerk.

So when the call from Ottawa came during a community workshop, the Cree and Dene law student from Fort Nelson First Nation in BC initially thought it was spam. When she finally decided to answer, she heard the voice of the first Indigenous Supreme Court justice online.

Justice Michelle O’Bonsawin was calling to let her know that she had been one of three people chosen to be clerk for her next year.

When she hung up, Caines told the team around her — and they erupted.

“They were jumping up and down and crying and laughing,” she said.

Koren Lightning-Earle at Wahkohtowin
Koren Lightning-Earle, legal director of Wahkohtowin Law and Governance Lodge at the University of Alberta, has mentored Caines for the past three years. (Ty Ferguson/CBC)

Koren Lightning-Earle, Caines’ mentor at the University of Alberta’s Wahkohtowin Law and Governance Lodge in Edmonton, who is from Samson Cree Nation, said she was one of several who cried when Caines made her announcement.

As a former president of Indigenous Bar Association, Lightning-Earle has long advocated for better representation at the country’s highest court. She called the moment she heard about Caines’ opportunity “one of the highlights of my career.”

“This system was never for us,” Lightning-Earle said.

“It was always built against us and we were never allowed to be part of this. We weren’t even allowed to be lawyers.”

Caines getting to work for O’Bonsawin is “a turning point for Canada,” she said.

Casey Caines and Koren Lightning-Earle sit on a coach together laughing at Wahkohtowin Law and Governance Lodge.
Caines and Lightning-Earle sit in the Wahkohtowin Law and Governance Lodge at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. (Ty Ferguson/CBC)

It was a moment years in the making, going back to when Caines’s eldest daughter was diagnosed with autism and Caines chose to become an advocate.

“And when I did that, I realized the intersectionality of so many other ways that law affects people,” she said.

“And I was like, I need to be part of fixing that. So getting myself at that table meant that I had to go to law school.”

Caines calls the opportunity to clerk for a Supreme Court judge “almost unimaginable.” She is the first person in her family to attend university, but she gets even more emotional when she remembers the obstacles Indigenous women have encountered throughout Canadian history.

“My grandmother wasn’t even able to vote 60 years ago, and now here I am, two generations later, clerking for an Indigenous justice at the Supreme Court.”

She credits support from her family and the team at Wahkohtowin for helping her succeed.

Aunts step up

Lightning-Earle said staff work to create a community that can replace the ones students leave behind, whether that means a snack, smudging or even child care.

Lightning-Earle and others hosted “Aunties night” for Caines’ two daughters, ages 9 and 3, some evenings when Caines had a class and her husband was away for work.

Two adults playing with two young girls on a rug at Wahkohtowin.
The team at Wahkohtowin helped Caines by hosting ‘Aunties Night’ for her two daughters during Caines’ evening classes. (Submitted by Casey Caines)

Lightning-Earle describes those nights of painting, baking and playing hide and seek as “complete chaos” but says it’s just part of supporting students.

“When our students come from communities, they don’t come from one house with two parents… They come from communities that love them, that hold them up, that fill rooms with them.”

Caines said she’s grateful for the support.

“I wouldn’t have been able to make it, not even to class, but … I don’t think I would have made it through law school.”

Caines will spend the next year articling at Wahkohtowin Law and Governance Lodge and clerking at the Alberta Court of Appeal before she and her family leave for Ottawa in August 2024.

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