A New Advocate in the Downtown Eastside

Christopher Hiebert at the Indigenous Community Legal Clinic
Christopher Hiebert at the Indigenous Community Legal Clinic

Christopher Hiebert had heard of the Indigenous Community Legal Clinic, a program offered by the Allard School of Law at UBC, long before he became a law student. He lived in a single-room occupancy hotel in Gastown, a block from the clinic’s front door.

He was intrigued. “The clinic inspired the idea that I could do something as a lawyer that wasn’t typical,” Hiebert says. Once he decided to become a lawyer, the Allard School of Law was the only law school he applied to – with the specific intent of working with the clinic.

Eight years later, Hiebert now has his JD from the Allard School of Law and is the second-ever articling student at the clinic, a position that was initially funded by a generous donation from Mark Gervin, the Legal Services Director of the clinic and a lecturer at the Allard School of Law. The Franklin Lew Innovation Fund matched Gervin’s donation in support of the first two articling students, and now the position is being funded by the Law Foundation of British Columbia.

The Indigenous Community Legal Clinic, located in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, was started nearly 25 years ago. Taking on everything from criminal defense cases to family law, the clinic exists to provide free legal services to the Indigenous community in the Downtown Eastside, as well as legal education to Allard School of Law students—seven students per semester spend time working on files there.

According to Hiebert, who is Dene, the clinic is an essential resource for underserved Indigenous people. “The people that we serve often are incredibly poor and don’t really have the opportunity to have their voices heard,” Hiebert says. “For (our clients) to walk into court with an advocate … it makes a huge difference not just for their confidence but for their outcomes.”

Hiebert is getting a broad experience as an articling student at the clinic. He works on more involved files, attends policy meetings and appears in court regularly, all while serving the Indigenous Community, which means a lot to him.

Gervin, who has served as the supervising lawyer of the clinic for two years, believed for years that the clinic would benefit immensely from having an articling position. “I think it has a cascading effect,” Gervin says. “If I make a donation, then we have this person who can help 20 people during his articles. A second year law student isn’t yet able to do the things that an articling student can do.”

He says he was also inspired by Justice Murray Sinclair, who as chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission gave Canada a call to action to prioritize Indigenous education (numbers 6-12 and 62-65) and judicial services (numbers 25-42). This articling position does both: so far, the two articling students have been Indigenous (the program is open to Indigenous and non-Indigenous students), which has helped them get the experience they need to help their communities from within—and having a full time articling student means the clinic can take on more clients and provide enhanced services.

Despite being in the profession for nearly two decades, Gervin already credits the clinic’s articling students for helping him see how he works with underserved clients in a new way.

He tells the story of Carly Teillet, the clinic’s inaugural articling student. During her time, she showed Gervin, the experienced professional, how important it was to use their time in court to share not just what their clients need as individuals—but to educate the court about the Indigenous community, its rich history, and its particular challenges. In doing so, Carly changed the way he thinks about law, and the clinic itself.

“The clinic, in addition to helping all these people who really need our help, is also educating the larger society,” Gervin says. “I think that is what Justice Sinclair wants, to get at the truth, to talk about the truth and to change the way we think.”

Related Projects