St. Thomas University alumnus Tom Isaac was voted as one of the top 25 most influential lawyers in Canada.
According to Canadian Lawyer Mag, he is the leading authority in Canada on Aboriginal law. Isaac has published 14 books on Indigenous issues and continues to advise the federal government on Métis rights. He’s been practicing Aboriginal law for over 30 years.
Isaac said it was the foresight of the Native studies professors at STU who inspired him to pursue Aboriginal law.
Isaac was working toward an interdisciplinary degree in international human rights when he took the Native Peoples and the Law course with Graydon Nicholas, in the mid 1980s.
“Aboriginal issues really struck me,” said Isaac.
After Isaac graduated from STU in 1987, he completed a masters in political science at Dalhousie, with hopes of completing his PhD. After discovering he preferred the practical side of law, he came back to Fredericton for a law degree at the University of New Brunswick.
Isaac said when he first entered the field, his skill set was unique. However, Aboriginal law has since become a prominent field in human rights.
Isaac said that although law lacks grey areas, society has many.
“We are seeing governments, decision makers — Aboriginal people are struggling with what this means in practice. And so that’s why I say we are really still in the infancy of this. And that’s why I think prudence is [important], and that doesn’t mean we take our time. It just means that we very much need to be thoughtful.”
In 1982, Section 35 was introduced into the Constitution. This reaffirms legal protection for the treaty rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada and the reaffirmation and enforcement of these treaties, including the Peace and Friendship Treaties. It also protects rights to land, such as fishing, logging, hunting, Aboriginal title.
According to Isaac, since Section 35 was established, Aboriginal rights have advanced, legally speaking. This section has been examined in court more than most other constitutional issues, with approximately 70 Supreme Court decisions since the section came into force.
“For those people who think, ‘Well geez, 70 decisions, 35 years, that’s a lot. You know, we must be halfway through the book that is going to be written.’ And I am actually of the view that we are barely through the first chapter.”