Dean for a day wants to boost Osgoode’s Aboriginal appeal

 Above: ‘Student’ Lorne Sossin (right) makes an appeal to ‘Dean’ Hannah Askew

With a proposal to “build on Osgoode’s already excellent commitment to diversity and equality by endeavouring to create a more welcoming environment for Aboriginal students,” Hannah Askew won an opportunity to become York’s law dean for a day. The first-year student from Vancouver, who spent the last three years working at BC’s Native Education College, made her suggestions in a winning essay for Osgoode Hall Law School’s annual Dean for a Day competition.

“Hannah offered an ambitious curricular agenda, a cultural and community focus to integrate Aboriginal cultural speakers and events into Osgoode community events, such as First Year Orientation,” the judges said of Askew’s winning paper. “She also proposed a creative strategy for attracting and integrating more Aboriginal Law students to Osgoode.”

Hannah AskewLeft: Askew beams after seeing her day’s schedule

The selection committee also awarded an Honourable Mention to first-year JD student Thomas Wilson saying that his poem, “Lean Mean Dean Machine”, “surely qualifies him to be Osgoode’s honorary poet laureate.”

The Dean for a Day event gives one student the chance to meet with faculty members and staff to discuss improvements in course offerings and services, and to pick their mentors’ brains. It was an opportunity Askew took full advantage of by scheduling meetings with Osgoode Professor Dayna Scott, whose current research project tackles the issue of pollution on Ontario’s Aamjiwnaang First Nation reserve, and Ronda Bessner, assistant dean of the Juris Doctor Program, who was involved with the Ipperwash Inquiry.

“The most exciting part of [the day] for me was the ability to connect with people,” said Askew. “There are people on faculty that I know by reputation and I had read some of their work, but I’ve never had the opportunity to meet them.”

Askew, whose family history is more connected to the colonizers than the colonized, set her sights on a career working with Aboriginal peoples after teaching on a reserve in BC’s Okanagan region. She was an instructor in the Native Education College’s family & community counselling and Aboriginal justice studies programs. The school is BC’s largest private native college and specializes in first- and second-year community college courses that prepare students for working in their communities or pursuing university level studies. The college offers programs on site for some of BC’s more remote areas and Askew’s first teaching assignment saw her hit the road for the Okanagan desert.

“A lot of my most memorable experiences come from working on the reserve,” Askew said. “I was able to take Okanagan language lessons from an elder there which was amazing. The students were really knowledgeable about the land and they gave me tours of the desert area up there and told me the stories from their nation. They were very welcoming and warm and I felt a real connection to them and the place.”

That connection led Askew to ponder how best to continue helping the community solve its most pressing issues and pointed her towards the law. “There are so many unresolved land claims issues and so many of my students came from nations where the land claims aren’t settled yet,” she said. “A lot of them are facing issues around unwanted development in their territories and the environmental fallout from that. I could just see that the law was a really powerful tool for helping to address those issues.

“I chose Osgoode because I knew it had a reputation for really strong scholarship, but the professors here have really exceeded my expectations and I’ve been extremely happy with my classes.”

But her satisfaction with Osgoode didn’t rule out noting areas for improvement in her essay, which called for more indigenous content in the curriculum, more Aboriginal cultural events and more aggressive recruitment of Aboriginal students. “To reach these students, I would hire an Aboriginal ambassador to speak with [them]…about the cultural and financial supports that Osgoode offers,” Askew wrote.

In discussing her future plans, Askew noted she has already applied for Osgoode’s Intensive Program in Aboriginal Lands, Resources & Governments, which attracts students from across Canada and gives them clinical experience working with native peoples in Canada or as far away as New Zealand.

But Dean Askew’s day was not completely taken up with lofty rumination on these important issues – no, a dean’s work is never done and on her to-do list for the day were notes to pass along requests from her fellow students for “more and better coffee” and “more heat in the women’s washroom”.

Sossin plans to write in his dean’s blog about his experience as student for a day and comment further on Osgoode’s engagement with Aboriginal issues.

To learn more about Hannah Askew check out her video interview.