Thomas Isaac was named one of the top 25 most influential lawyers by Canadian Lawyer in 2018 for his work in Aboriginal law. (Submitted by Thomas Isaac) The man who advised the N.W.T. and federal governments on negotiations in the South Slave region is being named one of the top 25 most influential lawyers by Canadian Lawyer .
Tom Isaac is a partner at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP based in Vancouver and was recently recognized as a leading authority on Aboriginal law.
"I was very pleased. I mean it’s always nice to be recognized I think for your work in your chosen area, so I was very pleased and surprised but obviously very happy," Isaac said of the win.
For the past nine years, the Canadian magazine has been recognizing legal professionals across the country, highlighting their work over the previous 18 months. For Isaac that includes his role as the ministerial special representative for then Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett and N.W.T. Premier Bob McLeod regarding the Akaitcho Dene and the Northwest Territory Métis Nation negotiations. Isaac was the ministerial representative for Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett. (David Gunn/CBC) Isaac’s report A Path to Reconciliation was released last year.
He said his biggest observation was that governments heavily focus on the unratified 1990 Dene/Métis agreement. He said it takes a regional approach that doesn’t work for the South Slave region because of competing interests in the area.
"I felt that it was probably the singular most important thing I said in that report, because the minute you acknowledge competing interests … you start moving from the old and toward the new," he said.
Isaac also served as the ministerial special representative regarding the Gottfriedson day scholars’ class action lawsuit.
Launched by the Tk’emlups and Sechults bands from B.C. in 2012, the lawsuit seeks redress for students who attended residential school during the day but went home at night. They weren’t included in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2016 and have never received compensation. Aboriginal and treaty rights
Isaac began studying Aboriginal law in the 1980s when the Constitution Act had just been amended and he said there was little understanding of section 35, which addresses First Nation, Inuit and Métis rights.
"I was just always fascinated with this notion that we were constitutionally protecting Aboriginal and treaty rights," he said.
Since then, Isaac said he has seen the area grow and Canada is now a global leader in protecting Indigenous rights constitutionally.
Challenges the country still faces, he said, are with some governments lagging behind and a disparity in the standard of living of Indigenous people.
"Aboriginal peoples in Canada are still Canadian and at the end of the day we must ensure that all Canadians are treated with the same degree of respect when it comes to access to services," he said. "And that’s probably putting it mildly in Canada." Creation of Nunavut
Isaac’s career has also included time in the North working on self-government agreements in the Mackenzie Valley and as an assistant deputy minister in the N.W.T. when Nunavut became a territory.
"That was really an amazing job and I still think back on that job very fondly, that was just a unique opportunity in Canadian history, northern history to be involved in something so important," he said.
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