Political and moral beliefs shaped this year’s distinguished alumna

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By Ben Wagg

Gender Studies alumna Tamara Napoleon has some advice for University of Victoria students: hold strong to what you believe.

This year’s Distinguished Alumna for the Humanities has led a trailblazing career in law, which she says is grounded in her undergraduate degree in Gender Studies. Napoleon’s accomplishments include being the sole Indigenous female business law solicitor at the international law firm Gowling WLG and among a handful of Indigenous solicitors in Canada.

Her journey began nearly 20 years ago at UVic. At the time, Napoleon was unsure of what she wanted to pursue as a career.

“I was experimenting with a broad range of classes in the faculties of Humanities,” she says. “Before I ended up having the opportunity to actually engage in the practice of law, I thought that I would end up in the academic realm.”

This period of exploration proved beneficial for Napoleon, who decided to major in Gender Studies and take a minor in sociology.

“It was a great opportunity to look at my own opinions and stances while focusing on exploring my own identity as an Indigenous feminist,” she says.

Napoleon harnessed her passion for debate and social justice and enrolled in a series of formative co-ops, including at Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC), where she had the opportunity to work in the gender policy analysis division. Napoleon graduated from Gender Studies in 2004. She then applied and was accepted into law school at UVic. There, her experiences as a summer student helped her recognize that she “loved the rhythm of law.” Important changes in the Canadian legal system at the time catalyzed her interests in contracts, taxation and Indigenous rights.

“There was a big shift starting to happen within the practice of Aboriginal law,” she says. “Communities were really starting to exercise their economic power.”

Napoleon, who is from Saulteau First Nations in Treaty 8 Territory, proudly draws on her heritage in her professional practice. Her areas of expertise include economic development, corporate structuring, Indigenous governance and natural resource regulations.

“I knew I wanted to work in Aboriginal law and I didn’t see the point in not advertising my own background and interest,” she says. “I think Gender Studies gave me the tools to be a lawyer in terms of having a feminist mindset and spending years critically thinking.”

While she has had success, Napoleon acknowledges the difficulties of her unconventional path.

“When you combine undergraduate studies with law school it's a really long haul of academic application. In doing Gender Studies, law, and then going into the area that I have chosen, they've been non-traditional or outside the norm either academically or within law,” she says.

Her advice for students with a unique trajectory? Don’t give up.

“Perseverance is a great skill that I learned from Gender Studies. Having something that you're passionate about can drive you a long way,” she says. “Always hold strong to what you believe, and ensure that you're finding fulfilment in what you're doing. It will serve you very well in continuing on.”

Despite her accomplished career, Tamara is not content to rest on her laurels. She sits on the board of the Aboriginal Mother Centre and is a member of the First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining and 4 Evergreen Resources. She is a former board member of Vancouver Native Health Society and The Justice Institute of BC.

“My plan is to continue to challenge myself and be fulfilled as I continue along in my career and ensure that it matches my own political and moral beliefs,” Napoleon says.

Napoleon was honoured at a special dinner and awards ceremony on Feb. 5, along with her husband, Merle Alexander, who received the Faculty of Law’s distinguished alumnus award. Napoleon also visited a Gender Studies class at UVic, where she shared the story of her career and answered questions from students.