By Dianne Meili
Alfred Scow, the first Aboriginal judge ever appointed to B.C. court, had much to celebrate.
But he refused the “role model” moniker, taking more pleasure, it seemed, in the idea he may have played a part in reconciling the gap between Aboriginal and mainstream Canada.
Placing no blame and fuelling no anger, Alfred chose a passive approach to educate Canadians about the disparate Aboriginal experience. In his retirement years, for example, he published Secret of the Dance, imparting the true story of how he, as a nine-year-old child, snuck in to watch his father dance at a potlatch, ceremonies prohibited at the time by the Indian Act.
Written with Andrea Spalding and Darlene Gault, the book was selected as one of the 2007 Best Books for Kids and Teens by the Canadian Children’s Book Centre.
Tina Dion, a Cree lawyer in Vancouver, met Scow in 1996 when he appealed to her University of British Columbia law class for help.
“He had a question for us,” recalled Dion. “He wanted Aboriginal students to advise him in his efforts to combat misinformation about Aboriginal people in the media.” Dion sensed his genuine purpose and helped him establish the Scow Institute for Communicating Information on Aboriginal issues, of which she is currently president.
The institute was named for Scow without his knowledge.
“He and Joan (his wife) missed one meeting and that’s when the committee came up with the name. We joked, ‘That’s what you get when you miss a meeting,’” Dion explained in a 2010 article in the Law Society of British Columbia’s Bencher’s Bulletin.
The Scow Institute is responsible for making available unbiased information about specific laws that affect Aboriginal people and shape their experience.
According to Dion, “Alfred was a decade shy of not being able to be a lawyer.” A law was passed in 1919 preventing First Nations and other minorities from being admitted to the legal profession, because they were barred from voting in government elections.
“Aboriginal people were only allowed to vote in 1960, and Alfred graduated in 1961, so he just made it in,” Dion said. Before that, he was not considered a Canadian citizen.
Not only was Scow the first Aboriginal judge in B.C., he was also the first Aboriginal to graduate from law school in B.C., and also the first called to the bar in that province. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 2000 and the Order of B.C. in 2004.
Born April 10, 1927 in Alert Bay, Scow’s parents were Chief William Scow of the Kwicksutaineuk Nation, and his mother’s name was Alice. The couple valued formal education and used subtle cohersion to keep their son in school.
As Scow recalled in an article published in 2005 in the UBC Law Alumni Magazine, at 15 he told his parents he wanted to quit school to fish and support the family of 18. They agreed, and Scow was secretly disappointed they didn’t argue with him. A few days later he overheard them talking about arranging his marriage now that he was a working man. He tiptoed out of the house and went for a long walk, pondering this unexpected turn of events. The next day he announced he would stay in school and continued his studies for the next 20 years.
Scow’s story has an epilogue: years later, at a family gathering he took his parents aside and asked if they knew he could hear their conversation of so many years ago. Smiling, they nodded “yes.”
Alfred could have been the poster boy for the saying ‘slow and steady wins the race.’ He had fished with his father from the time he was six, and financed his law degree on halibut and salmon boats. At first, he found the concepts of the western legal system to be foreign, and claimed to be far from an academic. He found school difficult and lacked good study habits, struggling with his classes but never giving up. Fortunately, the UBC Dean and some of the professors encouraged him and he finally graduated at 34.
“For a long time, it really didn’t strike me as significant that I was the first (Aboriginal to graduate in law),” Scow is quoted as saying in the law alumni magazine, even though the head of the Indian Affairs Department for B.C. attended his ceremony. “I want to do whatever I can to show my gratitude because (it) really changed my whole life.”
Scow began private practice in 1962 and married his English wife Joan Heaton-Peterson in 1964. The couple had no children.
As a lawyer with only two years’ experience, he was asked by a Fort Rupert couple to defend their daughter, charged with murder. He deferred, insisting they hire a senior lawyer, but they wanted him. Finally, he asked a top criminal lawyer what he should do. “You’re a lawyer, aren’t you?” the man asked. Scow replied in the affirmative and was told “Well then, take the (expletive) case!” He did, and his client was acquitted.
Scow was appointed to provincial court in 1971, and expected to hold the job for the rest of his career. But in 1967, he was appointed as a representative of Canada on a fact-finding commission in Guyana, and was later appointed chair of a board of review for the B.C. Workers Compensation Board.
He also served on the management council for UBC’s First Nations House of Learning and was a lifetime member of the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Society, where he was the founding president.
In his retirement years, Scow broadened his scope to include activities that would better the position of Aboriginal people across Canada.
“He didn’t sit idle,” said Dion. He quietly developed organizations and set up scholarships to help individuals, and Canadian society, as a whole, she explained. Significantly, he established a bursary fund with the Provincial Court Judges for needy law students at UBC, and the Scow Institute for Communicating Information on Aboriginal Issues.
Scow would have been 87 on April 10, and would have celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary this August. He died at home on Feb. 26, 2012 surrounded by his extended family. “We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever; the goal is to create something that will,” reads a post on the Facebook page developed after his passing.