Feathers and beads strung together sit on a table

June 13, 2023

Alumna makes history as first Indigenous chief justice in N.W.T.

Shannon Smallwood overcame fear of law school with an open mind
Shannon Smallwood

Shannon Smallwood, BA’93, LLB’99

As children, we’ve all been asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”   

For Shannon Smallwood, BA’93, LLB’99, a conversation with her mum sparked the thought of pursuing a legal career.   

“My mum said I could be a doctor, lawyer, or whatever. I had no idea what was really involved with being a lawyer, but it stuck with me, and over the years, I kept coming back to that thought,” she explains.

First in family to attend university and law school

That spark led Smallwood to become the first person in her family to go to university and the first person in her family to attend law school. She spent the summer after her first year of law school working for the Public Prosecution Service in Yellowknife, which opened her eyes to the possibility of being a prosecutor.  

“When I started law school, I really thought my future was going to be in the energy sector,” she says with a laugh. “But that first summer job experience changed my career trajectory.”  

After completing a clerkship position with the Court of Appeal in Calgary after graduation, she returned to her roots and moved to Yellowknife, where she has spent much of her career. 

Appointment reflects diversity of population 

Originally from Fort Good Hope, a small community in the Northwest Territories, Smallwood became the first Dene (K'ashógot'įne) person appointed justice of the Supreme Court of the territory in 2012, and in 2022 was the first Indigenous person appointed to serve as the court’s chief justice.  

“Being the first Indigenous judge and being from the Northwest Territories was a significant step for the court,” says Smallwood. “Being the first Indigenous chief justice in Canada reflects the diversity of the population in the country where about five per cent of the population is Indigenous. For Indigenous people thinking about law school, seeing the increase of Indigenous lawyers and judges in the profession can encourage them to take that first step.”  

Small steps lead to big goals 

Smallwood’s path to success started with hesitation and a bit of fear about making it through law school. But she approached each new challenge with an open mind.   

“UCalgary Law has a solid focus on practical skills, one of which is public speaking. For me, public speaking was the absolute last thing I wanted to do. I wanted to be a lawyer that sits in an office and never goes to court. But I took that first step, and when I succeeded, I thought, ‘Okay, if I can do that, then maybe I can do the next hard thing.’ I certainly didn’t imagine myself in this position.”  

With her experience facing the hard things, Smallwood encourages all Indigenous students to believe in themselves and to take the process one step at a time.   

"Don’t look at all the things you have to do, but the first small thing you can accomplish. Then move on to the next one and the next one. Believe in yourself that you can do whatever you want."   

June is National Indigenous History Month in Canada, an opportunity to learn about the unique cultures, traditions and experiences of First Nations, Inuit and Métis. It's a time to honour the stories, achievements and resilience of Indigenous Peoples, who have lived on this land since time immemorial and whose presence continues to impact the evolving Canada.

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