Alumni spotlight: Lydia Hwitsum, 2022 UVic Indigenous Community Alumni Award recipient

lydia-hwitsum.jpg

By Ivan Watson

Indigenous rights advocate, UVic law graduate, and Cowichan Tribes Chief Lydia Hwitsum is one of this year’s recipients of the University of Victoria Indigenous Community Alumni Award.

“I was the first person in my family to go to university, and the first woman from Cowichan to earn a law degree,” says Hwitsum. “It feels nice to be recognized and I hope it’s an inspiration for my grandchildren to encourage them in their own advanced education.”

At UVic law in the 1990s, she balanced family and academic responsibilities to earn her degree. “I started law school when my youngest was in full time kindergarten and I commuted from Cowichan every day,” she recalls. “I remember thinking, how am I going to get through this, but I did and today when I think something is too difficult, I remind myself that I made it all the way through law school and gained so many useful skills.”

Since earning her law degree in 1997, Hwitsum has distinguished herself in a number of prominent leadership roles, advocating for Indigenous and human rights at the local, national and international level. She served for six years as the Chair of the First Nations Health Authority, is a current member of the Royal Roads University Board of Governors, and in February 2022 was elected again as Chief of Cowichan Tribes after previously serving in the position from 1998 to 2001 and from 2007 to 2011.

One of her proudest career achievements was her advocacy work that led to the establishment of the Cowichan Watershed Board—a pioneering model for collaborative management and protection of environmental resources that has earned praise from community leaders throughout Canada.

“It has become an example across the country in how jurisdictions can work together in shared decision-making to impact what happens to our watersheds,” she notes. “The thinking is that we need to all be around the table to be able to make the best decisions for whole of watershed thinking at the local level.”

Hwitsum credits her UVic law degree for equipping her with the confidence and skills to make a difference in areas close to her heart.

“The main reason that I really wanted to go to law school was because I could see how the Crown had used the law as one of the main tools of subjugation of our peoples,” she explains. “I was able to garner really critical skills from my law school experience, and then go on to do significant work, in terms of using the law or legal frameworks to bring forward the rights and title of Indigenous people and to focus on a human rights approach and framework.”

Her advice to future lawyers is to never lose sight of the true human essence of a legal education and career.

“People have all sorts of reasons for going to law school and I would never begrudge them for that, but the underpinnings are about striving for social justice,” she says. “In the process of getting a legal education, I don’t think you can underestimate the challenges that some people are facing, and I think that’s part of bringing the humanity to how we deal with each other.”

Hwitsum is heartened by UVic Law’s unique joint degree program in Canadian Common Law and Indigenous Legal Orders (“JD/JID”) and, as Chief of Cowichan Tribes, she is working in a number of areas to advance Indigenous interests and legal rights.

“The fact that we have to resurge, we can’t lose sight of that, there’s been this huge colonial exercise by the Crown to subjugate and otherwise remove our peoples from our lands, our resources, and even from each other,” she says. “I wish there was more knowledge and understanding of what Indigenous people have actually had to endure, and that’s a part of what motivates me, and I’m happy that I gained the skills in law school to be able to stand up for our people.”