My name is Leah Ballantyne, LLB LLM, also known as Mikisew Iskwew of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation in Pukatawagan, Manitoba. Our Cree Nation is signatory to Treaty Six and we live in the boreal forest region of northern Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
I am the first and only member of my community to become a lawyer, and I follow a long line of both elected and hereditary leadership from our Nation. We are Ethiniwak, Nihithaw speaking people and have a rich and abundant history that intertwines with the fur trade era of modern colonial Canada. My kookums and mooshums grew up in the clean watershed areas of the great Missinippi (Big-Water) Sipi (River) at Pahki-ta-wakan (place to harvest fish), living a traditional lifestyle close to mother nature.
Our Cree community signed an adhesion to Treaty six in 1910, and from that point forward my family experienced the harsh realities of colonial policies and genocide. My biological mother attended the Guy Hill Residential school, and I was placed for adoption as a newborn baby by CFS. I was very fortunate to be adopted by my parents who provided a family with unconditional love and support throughout my life journey and to this day. I am a member of the sixties scoop survivors, and am among the +30,000 First Nation children removed from their families.
I was born and raised in the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, which continues to boast the largest urban Indigenous population in Canada (if not north america!). Growing up in Winnipeg, I was able to see other First Nations people and built a strong desire to connect with my family, community, and Nation. My family moved to Vancouver BC in the mid-nineties, and it was at that time I joined a support rally for the OKA crisis occurring at the time. The National Chief at the time was Ovide Mercredi (now an uncle!) and he made a passionate speech about colonial law and policy shaping Indigenous lives in ways we did not design. The light went on for me, and I decided that point onward that I would become a lawyer and advocate to advance First Nations rights, titles issues and changes to law and policy.
Once I graduated high school, I had the opportunity to go to Pukatawagan and meet my biological family. It was a nerve-wracking journey as I had to trust the process in my travels north, and that meeting my family would be okay for everyone involved. Much to my surprise my uncle greeted me at my arrival, and he also happened to be the longstanding Chief of our community. Chief Pascall Bighetty introduced me to my biological father, siblings, cousins, aunties, uncles and elders! Such a wonderful welcome it was.
I spent several years living and working in my home community, and then determined to reach my goal, went to University. I graduated from UBC Faculty of Law in 2005 and earned my call to the bar in 2008. I then went on to study my Masters in Law and graduated in 2017 as valedictorian at the University of Hawaii at Manoa Richardson School of Law.
Tell us about yourself:
My career has been eventful and expansive, I have served many community grassroots leaders, Chiefs, organizations and even two National Chiefs! I continue to work as a lawyer in a variety of capacities, currently with my First Nation, having undertaken child and family services legal reform work, alongside residential school site reclamation projects at Guy Hill and Sturgeon Landing residential schools. I also provide my time to the Lower Fraser Fishery Alliance for the RELAW project – “Revitalizing Indigenous Land, Air and Water,” which produced a legal synthesis report aimed at Indigenous law based fish habitat restoration strategies for the Lower Fraser. This work is created in collaboration with our RELAW team of Re-lawyers at the West Coast Environmental Law Foundation. Kwantlen Polytechnic University has hired me to edit a textbook in Criminology to ensure that culturally appropriate and safe language and theories are used to describe Indigenous Peoples. I am also currently a Board Member at large with the First Nation Health Authority. I currently hold a lawyers license to practice in both Manitoba and British Columbia, and am a member of both Law Society’s.
Every day, I am to conduct my work with passion and determination to better the lives of the people I serve. Having experienced growing up as a First Nation woman in the city of Winnipeg, I understand the ground zero aspect of MMIW, and focus on my healing, resilience and determination to make a difference. Part of my healing journey has been that I am not married and do not have children – but remain a proud auntie and reliable sister for my abundant family. I am working towards carving a path of justice that our next generation can live a better future with greater choice and justice in their everyday lives.
What is matriarchy to you?
Matriarchy is the heart of the Nation. Being a “matriarch” means to provide service, justice and leadership to your family, friends, community and Nation. Acting as a matriarch means you are grounded in the root of your family, your culture, and involves a sense of belonging and knowing your value as a Nehithaw and how to share that in a good way with the world, and all creation (beyond human) that includes animals, plants, sentient beings and the spiritual realm. It means doing your best and being honest yet humble in the steps you take forward, everyday. It also means self-care and ensuring that the home fire is burning bright before attending other matters.
How did you get to where you are? What is your foundation?
I believe in divine intervention and owe my deep love and gratitude to both my family I grew up with and my family of origin. It is the unconditional love, support and guidance from my all-encompassing family that gave me the courage to explore my own physical, mental, emotional and spiritual limits in this world. I had a safe place to return, a foundation that allowed me to flourish. It is my goal to expand this foundation for others to find the courage to follow their goals and dreams.
Who or what is/was your inspiration?
During the Oka crisis, I was moved by the inspirational words of National Chief Mercredi. It made me realize that I was seeking justice for our people, and a compassion for understanding and righting the wrongs and harms of the past. That we can learn, acknowledge, accept, heal and move towards a better path. This path is within ourselves, our families, our communities and the bigger world out there!
What words of wisdom do you have for your sector/industry?
I always say that modern law is made by people and can always change! We are collectively beginning to acknowledge our colonial past and the patriarch of laws and policies that ruled the day. There is plenty of room for true justice to be realized, and this is the great work and undertaking that I strive for everyday as an advocate.
What is your vision for the next generation?
The next generation must realize the courage, resilience and sacrifice of the generations before us that kept space that we could be here. It is their strength, love and resilience that are a testament to our existence. We must take the lessons of the past and carve a just future for tomorrow where we all can live free from harm and find a harmony within and with all creation regardless of our lifestyles or endeavors.
Share words of wisdom, message, or quote for the next generations?
Love abundantly show love respect and kindness for all beings and creation. This is the light that will guide your path.
Women in Leadership has been awarded a contract with the Government of Canada, for a project called "The Indigenous Leadership Circle", which is a continuation of the work that the foundation has done over the last 20-years of engaging with the Indigenous communities on Women's Leadership.
The Indigenous Leadership Circle Team will be conducting research aimed at Professional Indigenous Women, Indigenous Women in the Education System and Employer & Industry Stakeholders and value your input through a series of surveys and round-table meetings. The results from the findings through these surveys and meetings will be showcased at our Indigenous Leadership Virtual Forum, which will be held on March 8, 2022. Stay tuned for more details!
If you are interested in participating, we would value your input. Our surveys for each target category can be found here below:
To learn more about the Indigenous Leadership Circle, please go HERE.