Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond
Time magazine has twice bestowed honours upon Turpel-Lafond, naming her one of the '100 Global Leaders of Tomorrow' in 1994, and in 1999 as one of the 'Top 20 Canadian Leaders for the 21st Century'.
The youngest of four girls born to a Cree father and Scottish mother on a reserve in northern Manitoba, she grew up in poverty, endured harsh physical mistreatment, and was surrounded by domestic violence and alcoholism in her home—a mirror of the upbringing experienced by many of the children she now encounters.
By age 16, she was already at Carleton University, Ottawa, gravitating from math and science to politics, philosophy and eventually the law. Turpel-Lafond holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Carleton University, a law degree from Osgoode Hall, a master’s degree in international law from the University of Cambridge and a doctorate of law from Harvard Law School. She also holds a certificate in the international and comparative law of human rights from the University of Strasbourg in Strasbourg, Alsace, France.
A member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, at age 35 Turpel-Lafond was the first Treaty Indian to be named to the bench in Saskatchewan. She was the Administrative Judge for Saskatoon, involved in the administration of the Provincial Court of Saskatchewan in relation to access to justice, judicial independence projects, technology and public outreach.
She has also worked as a criminal law judge in youth and adult courts, which led her to work at developing partnerships to better serve the needs of young people in the justice system, particularly sexually exploited children and youth, and children and youth with disabilities, such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
Prior to her judicial appointment, Turpel-Lafond was a lawyer in Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan and a tenured professor of law at Dalhousie University Faculty of Law. She taught law at the University of Toronto, the University of Notre Dame and other universities, and held the position of Aboriginal Scholar at the University of Saskatchewan. She has been a visiting professor at the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria law schools.
In November 2006, Dr. Turpel-Lafond was appointed British Columbia's first Representative for Children and Youth, for a five-year term. Her responsibilities include; advocating for children and youth, protecting their rights and improving the system for their protection and support, particularly those who are most vulnerable. She serves all British Columbians under the age of 19, with an emphasis on young people in government care – such as those in foster homes, group homes or youth custody. These children and youth face greater challenges than those in the general population, especially related to health and education, incarceration and dependence on income assistance.
As the Representative, she doesn’t work for the government. Rather, the Representative for Children and Youth is an independent office of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia and does not report through a provincial ministry. Their work is based on the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of the Child, and upholds the following values:
– Children have a right to be protected and kept safe
– Families are the best environment for raising a child
– Parents and extended family have the primary responsibility for a child
– Decisions made about a child should include their own views and input
As a practicing lawyer, she has appeared before all levels of Courts in Canada, including the Supreme Court of Canada. Turpel-Lafond has worked on land claims with the Indian Law Resource Center in Washington, D.C., and served as a key legal and constitutional adviser to aboriginal leaders. She has been touted for a seat on the Supreme Court of Canada.
“People are very resilient, children are resilient, and support for children makes a massive difference,” Turpel-Lafond says. “Look at my life.”