Where Did My Crystal Ball Go?


Where Did My Crystal Ball Go?

I have had a lot of jobs. I was a stockboy in a Kmart; I’ve built windows in a factory. I have worked as a ditch digger, hotel desk clerk, bathroom janitor, machinist, assistant funeral director, sandwich maker, dishwasher, and the list goes on.

However, ever since I was 15, I dreamed of studying politics in Ottawa and going to Dalhousie Law School. The only reason I went to law school was to be an insurance litigator working for big Insurance companies. (I am still not sure why people roll their eyes when I tell them that). It should be noted that I grew up in an environment where nobody was cheering you on to finish high school, let alone go to law school.

In the mid 80s, I fled from my home province on my motorcycle. I was doing what any uneducated, longhaired rebel with a cause and two chips on his shoulder would do. I joined the Air Force. My theory was that I could learn skills that would allow me to work my way through university. I had already dropped out of acting school, unaware I could have asked for a student loan to help with tuition. I was broke. My short-lived military career was not a bad decision. I gained office skills and worked as a secretary, administrative assistant, legal researcher, and paralegal throughout my university years.

I did study politics in Ottawa — but fell in love with Anthropology — the study of culture. As time went on, I had a thirst for law and culture. Here comes the legal career whirlwind.

Why did I choose Dalhousie? It was not because Dalhousie is the best law school, although ask any Dal graduate which school is the best and they will not be shy on sharing their opinion. I chose Dal, because it was old. Somehow, I equated “old” with “good.”

One of my professors, who will remain nameless, (Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafonde), took me on as a bit of a special project. She sent me to the Philippines to spend time in a Tribal Legal Aid Clinic where I was exposed to new ways of thinking about the law and had the time of my life. I was excited by the idea of being a lawyer in other countries and postponed my dream of becoming a Bay Street insurance litigator.

Next stop? I transitioned into a Human Rights Management Internship with the Aga Khan Foundation and off to New Delhi where I studied Indian Law at the New Delhi Jesuit Institute of Law. After receiving this “social activist” training, I worked with Jesuit lawyers in a city called Ahmedabad. There is no reason to know this small Indian city — it only has a population of about eight million. We focused on cases called “atrocities.” Not just beatings, rapes, and murders, but crimes committed for cultural reasons. Often these crimes were committed on the relatively unheard of population of tribals or “Adivasis” (literally meaning “Indigenous” peoples). Their population is officially over 100 million — but thought to be much more.

Eventually, I came back to my dream and articled in a Toronto boutique insurance litigation firm. I loved the work but wanted to be in court more and joined the Federal Department of Justice (“DOJ”). For me, transitioning from India and parachuting into the role of a drug prosecutor in Toronto wasn’t filling my desire to mix law and culture. My journey with the DOJ took me from Toronto to the Yukon where I was in court every day and able to work with communities. I remember being the Crown in any number of lengthy, highly moving peacemaking circles. My time in the Yukon taught me a lot about Indigenous peoples and how mainstream institutions and communities can work together. After that I spent a little time on Residential school cases as a civil litigator and as managing lawyer to an Indigenous Poverty Legal Aid office in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.

Alas, I yearned for more international legal stimulation. So, I did what any responsible, well educated, career minded lawyer would do. I abandoned my legal career in Canada and I moved to Fiji. For the better part of two years, I worked as a legal officer with Fijian Legal Aid. I can tell you nothing stimulates the legal mind more than landing in a new country to dozens of manslaughter, murder, infanticide, and treason cases. I was at a slight legal disadvantage as the language of the accused in court was either Fijian or Fijian Hindi. There were no interpreters and my language skills, while always “flexible,” came nowhere near the concept of “fluent.”

I did have the amazing privilege of representing an Indigenous Fijian client charged with treason. The multiple month-long trial started on the first day with the tendering of the parliamentary hansard transcripts that captured things like, “Second masked gunman shoots bullets into ceiling of Parliament” or “First masked gunman: this is a coup.” One of these masked gunmen later heard the words “I hereby sentence you to death by hanging. May God have mercy on your soul.” These were perhaps the most memorable words I have ever heard in a court. Imagine it coming from an Australian judge, wearing a huge wig with a little piece of black cloth placed on top of the wig. In any event, tired of wearing wigs and hanging out on beautiful beaches, I came back to Vancouver and started up my private practice — and I loved it.

Just when I thought my career could not be going any better, in 2014, I transitioned to a job teaching with UBC Law School. I was part of a team that ran their Indigenous experiential learning clinic located right in the middle of the Vancouver Downtown Eastside. I had come full circle, having run from my home neighbourhood in the 80s. The clinic represents Indigenous clients while teaching keen upper year law students everything they want to know about lawyering.

Since accepting the appointment to be a judge with the British Columbia court, I have received lots of sound advice from my learned colleagues. We often refer to each other as “brother” or “sister,” which I always thought was a bit strange — until I got the job, and now I understand. They are like family. Everyone has said that when you are a judge you have to rely on your experiences. In other words, draw from your own life experiences when making decisions.

Every day, in court, I try to draw on my legal experiences as a poverty and international lawyer, Crown prosecutor and civil litigator, defence counsel and teacher. Each time I transitioned from one role to another, I felt like I was living a dream. To me, that is key, do what you love — and in life, what you love to do might even change over time. Career transitions are just a part of life’s journey.

When I started out my legal journey, nobody gave me a crystal ball. In my mind, I did not think I would need one — I had it all mapped out. Little did I know that my career would be such a long twisted legal trail.

My advice to anyone in law, would be “you don’t have a crystal ball, you cannot tell where you will be in twenty years — but imagine
the possibilities.”

Top photo: Judge Wolf in a barristers wig when he was defence doing a jury trial in Fiji.
Bottom photo: Judge Wolf doing a jury trial in the Yukon when he was Crown.