Battling burnout among Indigenous practitioners | Shaunna Kelly

By Shaunna Kelly

Law360 Canada (March 9, 2023, 9:14 AM EST) --
Shaunna Kelly
Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been an increase in discussions regarding burnout. This is particularly relevant for Indigenous sole practitioners.

It should come as no surprise that Indigenous persons are underrepresented in professional fields of work: years of systemic discrimination in education, health care and the justice system have caused those needing services to be overrepresented and Indigenous people delivering those services to be underrepresented. As a practising criminal defence lawyer, I can say that this is specifically true in our area of law: sole practitioners are non-salaried practitioners and often dedicate many hours to CPD programs, educational series, committees and boards.

We are among the few unsalaried professionals in the Canadian legal system. There is a necessity to hear from Indigenous practitioners, but with so few of us in private practice, we sometimes become overburdened with requests to participate, and those requests are typically based on in-kind services. It puts us in a position of internal conflict: we want to share our experiences and expertise in the area, particularly if we feel an obligation to our community, but we still need to balance that with our practice. After all, the lights need to stay on. 

As an Indigenous/Irish Canadian woman, I am often asked to provide in-kind services relating to my work representing urban Indigenous people here in Toronto. As a result of my dedication to social justice reform, one of the struggles I consistently face is my inability to say no. I feel the internal conflict pulling me in both directions: I want to share and help encourage change within the colonial-based legal system, but I don’t want to do so at the cost of my mental health.

At the beginning of the pandemic, and in recognizing that I was over-committing to an overwhelming amount of speaker events and other activities, I burned out. I left private practice for a bit, looking to renew my enthusiasm and patience with the work I feel so strongly about. I genuinely think that the path to reducing recidivism and the criminalization of Indigenous people rests primarily in publicly available education and training. In my time away, I realized that a change is necessary for our Indigenous colleagues and me. 

Indigenous people continue to be overrepresented in the Canadian legal system. Something isn’t working. We need change. Regardless of our position, we all need to reassess our roles and ask ourselves, what are we doing wrong? There are multiple ways we can tackle the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the legal system; one way is to encourage active engagement and retention of Indigenous people within the service delivery realm. 

Supporting Indigenous professionals is a good step forward and crucial to addressing systemic discrimination within all institutions. One way to support Indigenous professionals is to compensate for their time and perspective. Recognizing the expertise and lived experiences of those who usually volunteer their time at events is essential. We must also share as much knowledge as possible to improve the current delivery service model. The reality is that most Indigenous people in the Canadian legal system are represented by non-indigenous lawyers. As well-meaning as they may be, cultural competency does not naturally arise from empathy toward the systemic issues that Indigenous people face. 

So, I’ve returned to practise and made a few changes to how I do things. One of the initiatives I developed was to structure an Indigenous Voices Speaker Series that will be launched later this year. The series’ aim is to deliver Indigenous-focused topics to all persons working within the Canadian legal system, not just sole practitioners. The speaker events will only feature Indigenous voices; those voices will also be paid for their time.

We need to recognize the value of their time and their experience and acknowledge them as the leaders that they are. I hope others will follow my lead by bringing awareness to this initiative. 

Shaunna Kelly is Anishinaabe/Canadian-Irish and recently returned to private practice as a criminal defence lawyer and a consultant to organizations and businesses that wish to improve service delivery to Indigenous clients. She recently completed a nine-month contract with the Indigenous Justice Division of the Ministry of the Attorney General. She practised as a criminal defence lawyer for 13 years, was on the board of directors of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association (CLA) and was the Gladue Court representative to the CLA.   

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the author’s firm, its clients, Law360 Canada, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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