June 3, 2019

Class of 2019: Law grad has something to say about Indigenous land rights

Laura Phypers plans to spread her newfound legal knowledge to First Nations.

When Laura Phypers started law school at the University of Calgary three years ago, she knew she wanted to help First Nations, but she wasn’t sure what that might look like.

Not only had she learned about “serious structural issues” facing Indigenous people during her undergraduate degree, but the Supreme Court of Canada had made a landmark ruling granting land title to the Tsilhqot’in First Nation in B.C. “It was recognition that Indigenous people have a much greater right to this land,” she says. “With that in mind, I came into law school thinking, 'How can I delve into this issue?'”

She admits to being pretty intimidated when she started her studies. “Law school was a world unknown to me,” she says. “I have been on the other side of these giant, monstrous institutions like criminal justice and child welfare and you just naturally form a fear of them.”

But she dug in — meeting with professors after class to further discuss concepts, brainstorm ideas and learn about other scholars working in Indigenous rights.

“What I’ve come to understand is way more vast than I could have imagined,” says Phypers. “I’ve been taking all the knowledge I get at law school, these really abstract ideas and legal concepts, and am trying to break them down into concepts that anyone can understand and bring them back to my people.”

Phypers, a member of the Lower Kootenay Indian Band in B.C., spends a lot of time in her hometown of Creston knocking on doors, going to meetings and talking about the law around unceded territory.

The band is in the process of negotiating a treaty with Ottawa, which Phypers is against. “Treaties are not set up for success,” she says. “Through my studies I have been able to determine that there are many different routes that B.C. First Nations are taking and I have been able to understand that legal minds are suggesting different routes. There are better routes than a treaty; I am anti-treaty and pro-reconciliation.” 

While she will continue working on land issues in B.C., Phypers is about to start articling with a firm in Red Deer and building a practice at Maskwacis, the community south of Edmonton that straddles the Ermineskin and Samson Cree Nations. She will work as a criminal defence lawyer and fight for alternative sentencing rather than prison terms, as well as advocate for families with children in the child welfare system.

Phypers had “a clear sense of purpose” when she started law school, says Sharon Mascher, a professor in the Faculty of Law. “She wanted to develop the legal skills needed to advocate for the recognition and respect of the rights of Indigenous Peoples. She’s ready to play a role in this important Canadian legal conversation.”

Phypers is determined to transform the law. “I am really looking to push the boundaries of law and change it any way I can,” she says. “People understand the law and then they push it one way or another and open peoples’ minds to different perspectives. The law is a changeable thing.”

Laura Phypers, JD'19

Law student Laura Phypers studied Indigenous land rights so she could help her First Nation.

Riley Brandt