Open heart, open mind opens doors

Submitted photo

Eager to work with community justice director Brenda Young, Leaelle Derynck, LLM’20, successfully proposed an internship at the Chippewa of the Thames First Nation justice department to explore Anishinaabe constitutional law in Ontario.

Leaelle Derynck has sage advice for students and, having now earned her fourth degree from Western, she has the credibility and experience to back it up.

“It’s important to engage and build relationships,” Derynck said. “Take advantage of opportunities with open hearts and open minds. And, listen.”

It’s an approach that’s served Derynck well and, where opportunities didn’t exist, she created her own, setting the groundwork early to guide her thesis for the Master of Laws degree she’s earned as part of Western’s fall Class of 2020.

During her first days at law school, Derynck, BA’13, MA’15, JD’19, LLM’ 20, found she “wasn’t connecting with anything in particular. Contract and property law just didn’t resonate with me,” she said.

But then a course in constitutional law changed everything, exposing her to Indigenous legal traditions.

“That area of law just spoke to me,” Derynck said.

She then sought every opportunity to engage with Indigenous legal orders, including an Anishinaabe Law Camp, which deepened her desire to engage with the Indigenous community.

Where opportunities didn’t exist, Derynck created her own, successfully pitching her own summer placement in order to work alongside Brenda Young, community justice director for the Chippewa of the Thames First Nation.

Young had made a lasting impression on Derynck during an academic term she spent at Western as recipient of The Law Foundation of Ontario’s Community Leadership in Justice Fellowship.

“She taught us Anishinaabe law and introduced us to folks who came in and talked to us. It was a natural, really involved process,” Derynck said. “She’s just absolutely brilliant and I wanted the opportunity to learn more from her.”

Derynck applied to the Ministry of the Attorney General of Ontario’s Debwewin summer internship program, which places successful applicants in Indigenous organizations across Ontario. Instead, Derynck proposed an internship of her own, working with the Chippewas of Thames First Nation’s Justice Department.

Group of people kneeling outside in Oneida

Submitted photoAn Anishinaabe Law Camp helped deepen Leaelle Derynck’s interest in Indigenous law.

“It’s a really wonderful group of people. I felt absolutely at home in the office,” Derynck said.

During her placement, Derynck learned more about Anishinaabe constitutionalism, as the community prepared for the traditional sanctioning of their own constitutional document prior to having it passed with the band council.

“To my great surprise, there is nothing written on Anishinaabe constitutions in Ontario in particular – and written Indigenous constitutions more generally, are mostly absent from the scholarly conversation.”

Keen to take her quest further, Derynck undertook an independent study course, with Western Law professor Kate Glover Berger. “I went looking at what opportunities existed for Indigenous law to be recognized or respected by the state, thinking these constitutions might be at least a part of that project. When I found there was nothing available, I chose to focus on these documents in a more empirical way.”

Derynck’s desire to take her research “beyond the theoretical” impressed her supervisor, Michael Coyle, Western Law associate professor and member of Western’s Centre for Transitional Justice and Post-Conflict Reconstruction.

“Leaelle is passionate about the issues. She looks at them intelligently, and is also willing to become immersed in Indigenous communities to understand their perspective and the challenges Indigenous Peoples face, in having their ways of resolving issues or ways of maintaining justice respected by the Canadian state,” Coyle said

Derynck is grateful for the support and knowledge she’s received working with local Indigenous communities. “My participation has been a gift. I’m happy to have had the chance to learn and to at least try to add to the voices that are trying to correct imbalances, or use my position to provide access to someone who might not have the access.”

As she furthers her research on the potential functions of Anishinaabe constitutional documents, Derynck is now pursuing her PhD, and fifth Western degree.  Beyond that, and true to form, she said she’s “open to opportunities. This is a burgeoning area and hopefully, I can make a meaningful and practical contribution to this field I’ve fallen in love with.”