Acclaimed lawyer Opekokew a true advocate, leader
She vowed to retain her language and culture.
A week ago, Delia Opekokew, a longtime friend and colleague of mine, was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree from Osgoode Hall Law school. She has been active in First Nations politics since the 1960s and has a career that spans more than 50 years.
Delia began her long career in an inauspicious manner. After high school graduation, she attended secretarial school and worked for the fledgling Federation of Saskatchewan Indians. Walter Dieter was the leader of the FSI and times were hard, with spotty funding and few resources. Delia ran for and won the position of secretary on the board of the FSI.
In 1973, the dean of law at the University of Saskatchewan, Roger Carter, opened the Native Law Centre as an institution that would encourage Aboriginal students to pursue a career in law. Delia and her friend Marion Ironquill Meadmore were among the first to enrol.
At the time Delia was married to First
Nations actor Johnny Yesno and his career was centred in Toronto. Delia enrolled in Osgoode Hall Law School and received her law degree in 1977. She told me that Johnny was very supportive and made her studies easier.
Delia was among the generation that first succeeded outside the reserve, and her career contains many firsts. She was the first woman elected to the executive of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians; she was the first Indigenous woman to be called to the bar in Ontario and Saskatchewan. However, she was the second woman in Canada to receive her call to the bar — Ironquill Meadmore was the first and beat her by one year.
In 1979, she practised law in Toronto with Norman Zlotkin, who later taught law at the University of Saskatchewan. The law firm of Zlotkin and Opekokew didn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
From 1980 to 1985, she returned to her home province and was under contract with the FSI. It was an exciting time with the constitutional negotiations underway. The First Nations lobbied hard to have the treaty and Aboriginal rights enshrined in the Canadian Constitution. I was a vice-chief of the federation at the time and we had the opportunity to be on the front lines of history.
Delia authored a book that outlined our history of treaty and position within Canada. This book, The First Nations, Indians in the Community of Man, was a landmark publication and is still in use at universities across Canada.
Her list of accomplishments is lengthy; she was a commissioner of the Lachance/nerland inquiry along with fellow commissioners Judge Ted Hughes and Peter Mackinnon, the dean of the College of Law and the U of S.
She also represented numerous First Nations in land claims and other related claims. She represented her home community of Canoe Lake in their successful case against the loss of livelihood and habitat with the Primrose Air Weapons Range.
She also represented the family of Dudley George, who was shot and killed by police at the Ipperwash protest in Ontario.
Like most of our people, the connection to home, family and the land is where her roots lie. Delia told me that after high school when she began work with the FSI she realized how much of her language and culture had been either taken from her or never taught. She was struck with the chiefs and political activists and how they stressed the importance of retaining the language and culture.
She told me that it made her proud of her
Cree roots and she vowed to retain her language and culture.
She also built a home on Canoe Lake using her own funds; she didn’t qualify for a CMHC mortgage because it wasn’t her principal home. It’s her home when she returns there, but meanwhile two family members live there, and they use it as a safe house in the community for children in need.
Delia’s story is much longer and it’s not finished. She continues to live in Toronto and practise law. Her long list of accomplishments speaks to her dedication and determination, and we wish her well.