The Honorary Doctorate recipients at University Canada West’s 2022 Summer Convocation Ceremony are widely regarded as champions in Canada’s movement to truth and reconciliation, justice and human rights.

Chief Phil Fontaine, former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and Professor Mahoney, Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of Calgary, received the Doctor of Laws degrees during UCW’s convocation ceremony at BC Place on Thursday, July 14.

“We are delighted to bestow honorary doctorates on Phil Fontaine and Kathleen Mahoney,” said UCW President and Vice-Chancellor Sheldon Levy. “Individually and together, Phil and Kathleen have dedicated their careers to the betterment of Canada’s Indigenous peoples and the betterment of Canada. They are truly an inspiration to all of us at UCW.”

Chief Fontaine has dedicated his life to furthering the rights and interests of his people and achieving truth and reconciliation for the massive human rights violations suffered for over 150 years by generations of First Nations peoples in Indian Residential Schools.

Phil Fontaine was born at the Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba, one of 12 children raised by his widowed mother.

He attended the Fort Alexander Indian Residential School for eight years and the Assiniboia Residential School in Winnipeg for two years. He completed high school at Powerview Collegiate in 1961 and later graduated from the University of Manitoba with a BA in Political Science.

While in his 20s, Mr. Fontaine was elected Chief of the Sagkeeng First Nation, serving two consecutive terms. As Chief of his community, he was the first leader in Canada to take over local control of education, to establish the first addictions treatment center on a reserve, and one of the first to establish First Nation control of child welfare.

He was next elected as Manitoba’s Vice-Chief for the Assembly of First Nations and subsequently Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, serving for three terms. As Grand Chief he negotiated 37 employment equity agreements with private sector employers for indigenous employees and was instrumental in the defeat of the Meech Lake Accord because of its failure to recognize or protect indigenous rights. He was responsible for the creation of a unique framework for self- government for First Nations in Manitoba and demonstrated what self-government looked like when he developed a relationship with the National Congress under Nelson Mandela and organized a diplomatic exchange between the two indigenous governments.

In 1991, he was the first leader to disclose the widespread abuse of students in Residential Schools on the national stage and demanded a national inquiry. His courage and leadership in making the disclosures prompted thousands of survivors to come forward with lawsuits that led to the negotiations and ultimate adoption of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement in 2007.

He was elected National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations for an unprecedented three terms. It was under his guidance and leadership as the National Chief that the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement became a reality. In 2009, he led a delegation to the Vatican where he met with Pope Benedict XV who acknowledged the involvement of clergy in the residential school abuse of children and expressed deep regret and sorrow.

After leaving politics in 2009, he established his own consulting company, Ishkonigan Inc., and has served as a senior advisor to many organizations, including universities and major private and public sector corporations. His role includes advice and education about the integrity, aspirations and abilities of Indigenous peoples to create productive communities with climate-sustaining, viable economies.

Most recently, his long career of seeking justice for residential school survivors came full circle when he led a delegation of survivors to the Vatican to meet with Pope Francis to discuss reconciliation with the Catholic church. The delegation shared their stories of survival and received a historic apology from Pope Francis for abuses in Canada’s church-run residential schools. The Pope expressed “sorrow and shame” for the lack of respect for Indigenous identities, culture and spiritual values, and plans were laid for Pope Francis to visit Canada this summer to personally deliver the apology to residential school survivors and Indigenous communities. Without the leadership, courage and persistence of Chief Phil Fontaine, these historic events which have changed the history of Canada forever, would never have occurred.

He has received numerous awards and honours over his incredibly successful and historically significant career – he is a Member of the Order of Manitoba and has received a National Aboriginal Achievement Award, the Equitas Human Rights Education Award, the Distinguished Leadership Award, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal and was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 2012.

Professor Mahoney is an internationally recognized human rights expert, judicial educator and litigator who has spent her career seeking justice and equality for women and disadvantaged minorities through law. She was born and raised in Trail, BC and obtained law degrees from UBC, the University of Cambridge and the Institute of International Human Rights Law in Strasbourg, France.

Her achievements include many firsts. She was a founder of the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, litigating equality rights for women and minorities in the Supreme Court of Canada. She was senior counsel on the groundbreaking cases in Canada protecting racial minorities, 2SLGBTQAI+ and women and children from hate speech.

She represented the National Indian and Inuit Community Health Representatives in the first case involving indigenous plaintiffs under the Canadian Human Rights Act, securing a multi-million-dollar settlement for discriminatory rates of pay compared to non-indigenous health workers.

While a member of the legal team that represented Bosnia Herzegovina in their genocide action against Serbia in the International Court of Justice, her innovative work with Bosnian Muslim survivors of mass rapes resulted in the fundamental alteration of the definition of genocide in the Genocide Convention to include mass rapes and forced pregnancy.

She was a leader in judicial education in Canada and abroad. She realized that human rights legislation and constitutional protections of rights would mean very little unless judges understood their own conscious or unconscious preconceptions, biases and stereotypes in their decisions. While her work was controversial at the highest levels of the judiciary, she persisted, and ultimately it contributed to the establishment of the National Judicial Institute, a body which educates judges about stereotypes, myths and biases and the importance of understanding the social context of the people who appear before them.

For several years, she worked side by side with Chief Fontaine on the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement acting as the Chief Negotiator for the Assembly of First Nations. The Settlement Agreement, the largest of its kind in Canadian history, provided billions of dollars in compensation for individual survivors, long term support for intergenerational survivors, healing and commemoration, the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation, and prompted the historic apologies by the Government of Canada and the Vatican. Professor Mahoney was the principal architect of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and served on the National Administration Committee, which oversaw the implementation of the Settlement Agreement, from 2012 to 2022.

In addition to her legal practice and activism as a public intellectual, Professor Mahoney has a prolific publication record, having edited several books and written more than 40 peer reviewed articles, blogs and book chapters.

Among her many awards and distinctions, she was granted the Queen’s Counsel designation from the Law Society of Alberta, was named a Trudeau Fellow, and a Fulbright and Human Rights Fellow (Harvard), and an Alan Sewell Fellow. She is the Canadian Co-Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Human Rights Center and she received Distinguished Service Awards from both the Alberta and Canadian Bar Associations. She received the Governor General’s medal for her contribution to equality in Canada and was named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, Canada’s highest academic honour.

She has been a Professor of Law at The University of Calgary for 42 years and held Visiting Professorships or Fellowships at Harvard University, The University of Chicago, Adelaide University, University of Western Australia, Griffiths University, the National University of Australia and Ulster University in Northern Ireland.

In her address to the graduating class, Professor Mahoney told students, “I am calling you to action to ask you to move forward in ways to make this fragile planet a better place to live.”

She said the challenges facing the world today – climate change, misinformation and rapidly declining confidence in democracy – are far greater than the ones that have faced past generations.

“We need smart people like you to tackle these challenges… You are the bright lights of the future.”

In his address, Chief Fontaine talked about Canada’s history of excluding Indigenous peoples and denying the true history of the founding of the nation, and the detrimental effect it had on generations of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.

He issued a call to action for the graduating students to help the fight to have Canada’s First Peoples recognized for their role in the founding of Canada.

“We can correct this wrong. We can write the true history of this country,” he said.

“I ask you to join with us Indigenous peoples on this difficult journey that we have before us.”

Published on July 14, 2022.