Speaking up

The legal system doesn’t always understand the needs of Aboriginal people. Litigator Katherine Hensel is trying to change that
The legal system doesn’t always understand the needs of Aboriginal people. Litigator Katherine Hensel is trying to change that

Katherine Hensel has been waiting for keys to the new office of her litigation firm, Hensel Barristers, in Toronto’s trendy Liberty Village, for most of the morning. So, armed with her BlackBerry, the tall, spectacled Secwepemc lawyer has been doing what she can from the restored warehouse’s sprawling, pop-art adorned atrium lounge.

Her expanding firm serves First Nations, Aboriginal organizations and individuals across the country in civil, criminal and child welfare matters, and in public enquiries.

Hensel didn’t plan to specialize in Aboriginal law right out of the gate. “My only plan was don’t flunk law school,” she jokes of her time at U of T’s Faculty of Law.

In truth, Hensel is a true goal-setter. Despite many obstacles along the way, she’s been pushing since her teens to give a voice to herself and her community by making step-by-step plans.

Her focused outlook started back in Calgary when she was 14 years old — when she decided to pack her bags and leave home. “I had a single mother, we were very poor and there were some other issues going on, so it just made sense,” she says matter-of-factly.

Three years later she was living at the YMCA in Vancouver. The high school dropout, who was one step away from living on the street, was temping at an office where lawyers worked when something clicked. “I liked the approach they took to problems, their style of speaking and their autonomy,” she says. “I’d always known I wanted to take on a public service role, and this seemed like the complete package.”

So Hensel decided to go to law school. She earned high school credits at night and then took six years to complete her undergraduate degree at Dalhousie — she took time off to train, hoping to make the national rowing team. By the time she got to Toronto and law school in 1999, she wasn’t just preparing for moot competitions, she was also caring for her son as a single parent.

Her long-term plan was to act for First Nations, but first she wanted general experience. Then, only eight months into her job as a litigation associate at McCarthy Tétrault LLP, she was asked to join the Ipperwash Inquiry as assistant commission counsel.

For three years, she worked under industry veterans, including Aboriginal lawyer Don Worme, to get the Aboriginal perspective across in the inquiry that investigated the shooting of protester Dudley George by an OPP officer. And she got a close look at the challenges of working in Aboriginal law. “It’s difficult to prepare a First Nations witness who has traditional values and ways of speaking, to testify in Canadian court,” she says.

After Ipperwash, she sharpened her litigation skills at Stockwoods LLP Barristers for four years, then launched her firm last year. She says Aboriginal mentors like Worme, talented litigators at Stockwoods and colleagues in the Indigenous Bar Association have continued to motivate and orient her as she navigates the differences in language, power and biases between her cultural community and the legal system.

“When Katherine is in the courtroom her biggest focus is on ensuring that the perspectives of her First Nations clients are not watered down,” says Brendan van Niejenhuis, a partner at Stockwoods. He applauds her commitment to litigation for her clients instead of drawn-out negotiations.

Outside the courtroom, Hensel works to stay culturally connected. Every year the single mother takes her two boys (ages 15 and two) back to their territory in the interior of British Columbia where they continue to learn the Secwepemc language while visiting friends and elders.

She too hopes to become fluent in 10 years, and that goal goes to the heart of her bigger mission. “Language captures concepts about citizenship, personhood and identity, and nature of truth and fairness,” she says. “It’s how we engage with the world and each other.”

The Lowdown: Katherine Hensel

Year of Call: 2003
Current Job:
Founding partner of Hensel Barristers
Favourite legal character:
Atticus Finch
Greatest extravagance:
Dog walkers
Favourite item in closet:
Flannel pajama pants (I’d wear them to court if I could)
Most treasured possession:
Eagle feather
Favourite band:
Lloyd Cole and the Commotions

Photography by Derek Shapton
Shot on location at Native Child and Family Services of Toronto