Kind, patient, helpful, widely admired, “a man of many firsts” and an “aboriginal pioneer” are some of the words and phrases used to describe the late Alfred Scow by those that knew him.
The retired provincial court judge, who passed away on February 26 at the age of 86, was the first aboriginal person to graduate from a B.C. law school in 1961, the first to be called to the bar in B.C., and the first legally trained aboriginal judge in the province.
He was also a man who, even after he retired from the bench, dedicated his time to advancing and improving the position of aboriginal people, according to lawyer Tina Dion, who worked with him for more than 15 years.
“What I’ve come to realize is that when Alfred put his mind to something, he was fiercely determined to get the job done on one hand, yet on the other hand he was a true diplomat, who lived an extraordinary yet modest life,” she said in a phone interview. “I think he exemplified in many respects integrity, patience, diligence, and dignity of person and profession. He truly was a Canadian jewel.”
Scow was the recipient of multiple accolades, including the Order of Canada, the Order of B.C., and the Aboriginal Achievement Foundation Award. His efforts in helping to establish the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre led to a room in the building being named after him, and in 1997, he received an honourary doctor of law degree from the University of British Columbia, his alma mater.
“When you talked to him about those things, he was a little shy about them, because he always said that he knew that people viewed him as a role model, but he didn’t view himself that way,” noted Dion.
But Scow did help pave the way for aboriginal students to pursue a career in law, according to Linc Kesler, the director at the UBC First Nations House of Learning.
“Aboriginal people were pretty much restricted from becoming lawyers until the mid-20th century, and in fact First Nations were not allowed to hire lawyers to pursue cases against the Crown until I believe it was 1951,” Kesler told the Straight by phone.
“He opened those possibilities—he made it clear that that could happen, and that I’m sure was quite an encouragement to generations of other people who followed him.…Quite a distance has been travelled since the time that he went through that program, and the work that he did with people subsequently to encourage others is very significant.”
Jo-ann Archibald, the associate dean for indigenous education at UBC, agreed that Scow’s achievements encouraged other students to follow a similar path. The former director of the First Nations House of Learning said Scow provided a lot of “guidance and inspiration” to indigenous law students.
“As a person, Alfred was very kind, patient, always had a witty sense of humour, a twinkle in his eye, you know when he was going to give a bit of a humorous remark, or asking the important questions to make us think about things,” she recalled in a phone interview. “He always had time for students.”
Dion noted that when Scow was on the provincial court bench, he approached fellow judges to set up a scholarship for aboriginal law students at UBC and the University of Victoria.
“There was so many things that he did that it’s so hard to talk about all of them, because there was so many initiatives that he took that were selfless, to help others,” she said. “And I think when we realize everything that he accomplished in his life, he’s an extraordinary Canadian.”
Scow spent most of his adult life in Vancouver, where he lived with his wife Joan, to whom he had been married for almost 49 years.
The hereditary chief of the Kwicksutaineuk First Nation on Gilford Island was born in Alert Bay in 1927, where he attended St. Michael’s Residential School. After growing up fishing with his father, he helped to finance his way through university as a crewman on halibut and salmon boats, according to a profile of Scow on the UBC Law Alumni’s website.
In 1996, Scow approached aboriginal law students at UBC to find someone willing to work with him on an initiative aimed at informing Canadians about aboriginal issues, in the face of what the judge saw as misinformation in the media about First Nations. The resulting project, which Dion helped to form, became the Scow Institute for Communicating Information on Aboriginal Issues.
“Alfred was a man of starting from modest, humble beginnings, and the Scow Institute was one of those,” said Dion. “We all chipped in $100 each to buy a fax machine, paper, and postage, and started out just labouring away evenings and weekends, drafting papers and working towards getting funding.”
Dion said Scow hoped to help non-aboriginal Canadians understand the history behind some of the legal issues affecting aboriginal people, such as land rights, matrimonial property rights, and the limitations of being under federal jurisdiction on reserve land. Other topics the institute has published papers on include the taxation of aboriginal people, aboriginal people’s rights to natural resources and to fish, the rights of aboriginal women, and Métis rights.
“The mandate of that organization is to work towards a greater understanding between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people through information that is fact-based, non-partisan and accessible on top of what issues affect all Canadians,” explained Dion. “That sort of summarizes Alfred’s vision in trying to bridge the gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people, so that I think exemplifies Alfred’s visions for not only aboriginal people but for a better Canada.”
Dion hopes to see the work of the institute continue. And much as the elder influenced others throughout his life, Dion expects to see Scow’s contributions continue to leave a lasting impact.
“He was an aboriginal person that was a man of firsts in many, many ways, but the legacy that he’s left for Canadians I think is beyond what we appreciate today,” she said.
A memorial service is being held Saturday (March 9) at 2 p.m. at Christ Church Cathedral. A celebration of Scow’s life will also be held at the Great Hall at UBC’s First Nations Longhouse, on Sunday (March 10) at 2 p.m.