On June 15, Mercediese Dawson of Ditidaht walked the stage, marking the completion of her four years in the Canadian common law and Indigenous legal orders joint degree program at the University of Victoria.
The joint degree is the world’s first degree program to combine Canadian common law and Indigenous law.
Her 10-year journey through academia was, as her mother Karen Mack said, a struggle through to triumph. Dawson is in the second class to complete the joint degree program at UVic.
Dawson grew up first in Campbell River then in Port Alberni, where she attended Haahuupayak elementary. She then moved to Nitinaht Lake, and graduated from the Ditidaht Community School in 2008.
In 2013 Dawson started at Camosun College in the Indigenous College Prep Certificate program, at a time in her life when she didn’t know what she wanted to do. She relocated to Victoria, moving in with her aunt who, at the time, she hardly knew.
“I don’t think I would be at this stage if I didn’t have that family to take me in and support me when I first started my journey,” she said.
Reflecting on the Indigenous College Prep certificate program, Dawson said it introduced her to Indigenous studies, delving into the history of First Nations people, residential schools, the sixties scoop, and the Indian Act.
“Everything started coming together for me in that program,” she said.
After completing the certificate program, she got a diploma in arts and science at Camosun. Dawson then found herself following in the footsteps of her father, heading into a Bachelor of Social Work Indigenous specialization program at UVic.
With UVic as her top choice, she applied to roughly five different schools, doubting that she would get in.
“I really didn’t believe that I was going to get in anywhere,” Dawson said.
First hearing from UVic, all of the other schools followed suit sending their acceptances into programs.
“That program really helped with my healing journey,” she said. “It really opened my eyes to a lot of things that I needed to work on as an individual, and… I gained this confidence.”
She completed the Bachelor of Social Work, Indigenous specialization program in 2019. The next pieces of the puzzle would fall perfectly in place for Dawson when the first year of the joint law degree program started at UVic only one year prior to her finishing her BSW, she shared.
Coulten Boushie and Tina Michelle Fontaine were cases that pushed Dawson forward in her pursuit of her law degree.
“Those are the big cases that came out that same year and it kind of drove me harder to want to get into law,” she said.
As she applied for the law program, in her statement of intent she wrote that, because of the healing nature of her BSW, she dedicated it to her grandparents and all the elders that went through the residential school system. Upon getting into law, she would dedicate the joint degrees to future generations and “to be a part of the change that’s so desperately needed within the justice system and Indigenous people,” she shared.
In her first year of law, as part of the course her final rounds of negotiations were held at the Mungo Martin House in Victoria, and in recognition of her skills, she was selected for an Indigenous Woman’s Scholarship going into her second year, she said.
The final day of her negotiations would mark the last time she would be with her cohort before the pandemic forced students to their new classroom within their own homes and on their computers.
“COVID was the majority of my time in law school and it was very hard to navigate because everything was online through Zoom,” she said. “Just learning in a completely different fashion was one of the greatest challenges.”
Another significant challenge that Dawson had to overcome, she said, occurred at the beginning of her third year, when she had an abortion.
“That was the most difficult time of my life,” she said. “I was very grateful to have so many supporters and so many people who would just pick me up when I was down.”
“I struggled a lot in social work, but the struggle probably got 10-times worse within the last four years where I continuously wanted to quit,” she said. “I’m really proud of not giving up.”
As she moves forward, Dawson will be relocating to Whitehorse at the end of July, where she will be completing her mandatory articling for a period of 10 months. After that, she plans to return to Vancouver Island, where she will do the Professional Legal Training Course and Bar exam.
For Dawson, she said that when she got into UVic, she “knew that she had what it takes to be in those spaces.”
“I think a lot of the time, especially during law school, you feel, as an Indigenous woman, that you don’t belong in those spaces and that you’re not meant to take that space up,” she said. “One of my messages would be that we absolutely do. We belong and we deserve to be taking up spaces in these institutions.”
In sharing her story, Dawson hopes to inspire others to follow their heart and dreams.
“I found my voice in social work, and then it became a challenge to use my voice again in law school,” said Dawson. “But I think following, again, my heart, and knowing that I have all my ancestors behind me, my communities, my family I think the strength in that was what kept me going.”