By Kate Braaten, Allard Law JD Candidate 2019
I had the pleasure of meeting with Myrna McCallum the recently appointed Director of Investigations at UBC. Myrna is Cree-Métis from northern Saskatchewan. She was a single mom of young children during her time at law school. Racism, exclusion and the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in prisons and the justice system overall in Saskatchewan, prompted her to pursue a career in law. Myrna joined the law school in 1998 and again in 2002. She graduated with her LL.B. in 2005.
Why did you choose to attend Allard Law?
Myrna: Of all the law schools I looked at, UBC was the only one that had a dedicated First Nations Legal Studies program. I knew that the First Nations Legal Studies program would ensure that my legal education would accurately reflect the history of colonization and how Canadian law left so many Indigenous peoples disenfranchised, dispossessed and disadvantaged.
You likely had a different law school experience than many of our alumni, as you were a mother during your time at law school. Can you speak a bit about your experience?
Myrna: It was an incredibly exhausting and personally challenging experience. I don’t know how much I slept during those years. I was a work-study student so I worked the entire time I was in school and I had a full course load. I didn’t have parents or grandparents or siblings that I could ask to take the kids. When I had to miss class, I had fellow students share their notes with me. That’s how I got support from my classmates who are still my friends today.
What were your most memorable moments during your time at law school?
Myrna: My most memorable moments include my Indigenous peer group. As members of the First Nations Legal Studies program, our coordinator would hold cultural and celebratory events that brought us all together along with our families. This is one way we bonded and helped support one another. These events really rooted me and put a pause on the stress. I don’t think I would have succeeded without these bonds and cultural support. After completing her LLB, Myrna articled at Mandell Pinder in civil litigation. She went on to work as a defence lawyer for Saskatchewan Legal Aid and then joined the provincial Crown as a prosecutor.. Later, Myrna was appointed as an adjudicator in the Independent Assessment Process which is a quasi-judicial tribunal responsible for settling Indian Residential school claims. She continued her work as an adjudicator until shortly before her appointment as the Director of Investigations for UBC-V and UBC-O.
Can you tell us a bit about your early experience working in criminal law?
Myrna: I started out working as a defence lawyer with Saskatchewan Legal Aid. There is a lot of opportunity in rural and remote areas for lawyers. I started learning criminal law on my feet in the courtroom. I was soon offered an opportunity to join the Crown as a prosecutor where I would have greater access to training and mentorship. This ended up being an excellent opportunity for me because I gained significant experience litigating serious offences in a short amount of time. After five years as a Crown prosecutor, I was predominantly prosecuting sex offenders. I was running trials every week and I had just begun doing jury trials. Had I not made the decision to leave Vancouver early on in my legal career, I would have never had the opportunity to become so experienced in the court room in such a short amount of time.
How did you get involved in adjudication under the Independent Assessment Process?
Myrna: I was ready for a change. I learned about the opportunity to be an adjudicator in the Independent Assessment Process through a defence lawyer who later became a close friend. She helped me submit my bid in the government of Canada’s RFP process. My adjudication experience was the most rewarding work I have ever done but also the most challenging. I travelled all over the country hearing hundreds of stories of horrific sexual violence against helpless children and I also saw and heard about the lifetimes of self-hatred, addiction, hopelessness, anxiety, pain and devastation that flowed from the Indian Residential School experience. After 5 years I knew that it was time to take a step back from my role as an adjudicator. I began to experience vicarious trauma which in hindsight was totally foreseeable given my personal experience as a former student in an Indian Residential School. The Director of Investigations opportunity came to my attention and I thought I would be perfect for the role given my experience working with survivors of sexual violence and my knowledge of procedural fairness. I also recognized that returning to UBC would allow me to return to the traditional territory of the Musqueam people. The land, the trees, the wind and the water are sacred and healing to me. After leaving the Indian Residential School settlement process I needed some healing and restoration. I knew that the Musqueam territory would be the perfect place to achieve the healing I seek.
Can you explain what the role of Director of Investigations entails?
Myrna: UBC Policy 131: Sexual Assault and other Sexual Misconduct created this role. As the Director of Investigations, I am tasked with ensuring that sexual misconduct investigations are undertaken in a trauma-informed, procedurally fair and timely manner. I am also responsible for UBC Policy 3: Discrimination and Harassment. Given the new sexual assault policy and this new position at UBC, I am committed to building relationships with internal and external shareholders in an effort to build credibility in this independent investigation process. This role exists to ensure that all parties to an investigation experience a trauma-informed process which guarantees respect, fair treatment and adherence to the rules of natural justice.
Do you have any advice for students who have encountered some of the same types of struggles that you had?
Myrna: I was overwhelmed with anxiety in law school and I am aware that anxiety and other forms of mental illness diminishes the lives and relationships of many people today. I would say don’t let anxiety, depression, or any kind of negative self talk hold you back. You have to counter it with something positive, like positive self-talk, meditation, or simply surrounding yourself with friends who build you up and support you. Also, keep in mind that life will change and you will move on from where you are today. Life flows like the sea and the struggles you are facing now are nothing more than a wave you are riding and the turbulence will pass. I promise.