A Standing Buffalo woman makes history in the Northwest Territories
- By Kerry Benjoe
Stephanie Whitecloud-Brass never set out to make history by becoming the first Indigenous person to be appointed a Territorial Court judge, but that’s exactly what she did.
In an exclusive interview with Eagle Feather News, she shares her journey in hopes of inspiring other Indigenous youth to always dream big and take chances.
Growing up on the Standing Buffalo Dakota Nation near Fort Qu’Appelle, Whitecloud-Brass had a passion for math and science.
“I was actually planning on going into medicine,” she said from her home in Yellowknife. “When it didn’t happen, I was OK with it. I just figured it wasn’t for me and I needed to shift my focus.”
She regrouped and had a talk with her dad.
Whitecloud-Brass’s father was an Indigenous court worker for the File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council and spent hours talking about the law and justice system with her. Although she was always fascinated with the work he did, she initially didn’t consider pursuing a law degree.
After Whitecloud-Brass convocated with a science degree, she worked in the field as an environmental biologist, but eventually curiosity got the best of her.
“I was interested in the area [of law] and so I thought, if I wasn’t going to go into medicine, then maybe I could be a lawyer,” she said.
In 2004, Whitecloud-Brass entered law school, which she completed in 2007 followed by a year of articling.
She began practising law in 2008.
Despite changing career paths, Whitecloud-Brass said what has always motivated her was a desire to help people. Initially, she thought it would be through medicine, but that wasn’t the case.
“It just goes to show you that you can’t plan every single move in your life,” she said. “It doesn’t mean you’re not going to be successful. For me, it was important to keep an open mind. Always scope out your options and find out what best works for you.”
A willingness to take a chance is how she ended up in Yellowknife.
Her husband Mervin Brass received an opportunity they both knew he couldn’t pass up.
In 2017, they packed up and moved north with their young son in tow.
Originally, the plan was to spend a couple years in the north then re-evaluate.
“There is something about the north that gets a hold of you,” said Whitecloud-Brass. “This is a beautiful place to be. It’s a beautiful part of the country, a beautiful part of the world for that matter. It doesn’t really matter what season it is, there’s always something to do here. It’s just a breathtaking place to be.”
Her love for the north is one of the reasons she decided to apply to the Territorial Court.
As soon as she was able to share the news of her appointment, the first person she told was her husband, and then her mom.
Sadly, her dad died March 1, 2020 at the start of the pandemic.
“He was such a huge influence in terms of this career path that I decided to take,” said Whitecloud-Brass. “It just seemed natural to want to talk to him and call him and let him know. I told [my mom] that and she said, ‘He always knew this day would come.’ That’s all I needed to hear. I knew that he knew.”
She was grateful for her family and to the Standing Buffalo leadership, who made the more than 2,000-kilometre trip north for the special swearing-in ceremony on Feb. 3.
Whitecloud-Brass said the courtroom was packed with defense bar members, the Crown Prosecutor’s office and courthouse staff along with friends and family.
“It was just a really, really beautiful time and I will cherish it,” she said.
Her Dakota heritage was part of the day’s events, which included her brother singing an honour song. Whitecloud-Brass received a pair of moccasins before a star blanket was wrapped around her.
Although her new position is a big responsibility, she is looking forward to the experience.
Whitecloud-Brass said one of the things her dad helped teach her through his work was the value of representation, not just in courts, but everywhere. She said many Indigenous people from the area have congratulated her, which means a lot to her.
Whitecloud-Brass said the appointment also means she will likely finish her career in the north and she’s OK with that because it’s home.