Alberta Indigenous grandma pursues lifelong dream to become a lawyer

Anita Cardinal-Stewart is over the moon to be graduating law school at the University of Alberta.

It’s been a lifelong goal for the 45-year-old, but she didn’t realize just how young she was when she first decided this was a career she wanted to pursue. But then her friend sent her a picture of her yearbook photo; beside her it reads: Ambition: To be an actress or lawyer.

“My heart has been there for so very long,” Cardinal-Stewart said.

Anita Cardinal-Stewart wrote in her yearbook she wanted to become a lawyer. Thirty years, three kids and a grandson later, she is pursuing her dream. Anita Cardinal-Stewart

Cardinal-Stewart couldn’t anticipate the challenges she would face to get to this point. At 17 years old, she became pregnant with her first son. She met someone, and had two more boys.

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She worked and took care of her family. She also became a kokum a few years ago. Her dreams of becoming a lawyer were put on the back-burner.

“Even though I continued on, it was so difficult. Law school was very expensive, getting LSTAT became (hard)… It was just one thing after another, and you’re just trying to survive.”

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She also felt discouraged because there wasn’t a lot of Indigenous representation in the law profession.

“When you don’t see other people that look like you doing all the things, you almost feel like you’re barred from that.”

Cardinal-Stewart said she had to work three times as hard to get the same recognition and opportunities.

“It’s hard because you grow up in a world where now there is racism, and back then it was even worse. There is definitely this feeling of so many people projecting that on to you: ‘be ashamed of that you’re indigenous, be ashamed that I am First Nations.’ And that has been a very difficult thing to overcome.”

As time went on, she still felt her heart pull her toward a law career. But she was older now, and it would take seven years to become a lawyer.

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“I don’t have that time, I don’t have that money, we can’t afford it, and I don’t even know if I would be able to get in.”

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Cardinal-Stewart took classes at MacEwan University to learn how to become a paralegal. Her family moved with her from Woodlands Cree Nation in northern Alberta to Edmonton.

“It fuelled my fire to continue on this journey, not as a paralegal but as a lawyer, and so I started doing night classes.”

Night classes, early mornings, working full-time and taking care of her family, Cardinal-Stewart juggled everything and now she is a law student graduate.

Cardinal-Stewart said she is doing this not just for herself, but to inspire her sons, grandson and other people like her.

“It will always be about giving them a life where they will never limit themselves,” she said.

“It’s absolutely a dream that you should never give up on and there is a community behind you.”

Cardinal-Stewart was also recognized with the Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella Prize from the Royal Society of Canada.

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She hopes there will be more representation of Indigenous people, and other marginalized groups will pursue a career in the law field.

“We are still a very small community but we are growing and it’s time we represent ourselves, because we understand our issues and we understand what needs to be done.

“If they can have someone to look up to and be inspired by to reach for their dreams and their goals no matter how late in life that is, it’s absolutely a win for all for us.

“Being part of changing policies and practices and advocating for our nations and advocating legally as well because a lot of times we have non-Indigenous lawyers that are representing them and we want that to change.”

Thinking back 30 years ago of what the girl in the yearbook picture would say, Cardinal-Stewart tears up.

“I think she would be very proud of me.”

Anita Cardinal-Stewart posting for her graduation picture, after finishing law school at the University of Alberta. Anita Cardinal-Stewart

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