Melinda Skeels has come a long way from the windowless office she occupied as one of the ELC’s first articled students. But her ELC memories focus more on the daily walking meetings she had with Calvin (which is still a daily practice for ELC articled students) and the work she did, including appearing before hundreds of people to talk about how the government of the day had improperly handed over land to a forest company without regard for the public interest.
Fast forward 10+ years later, and as a partner at Ratcliff & Company, Melinda is still excited to talk about her work, especially the 200-day trial she’s preparing for that is scheduled to start later this year. The groundwork for the trial was laid in October 2011 when the Saik’uz and Stellat’en First Nations filed a lawsuit against Rio Tinto Alcan for affecting their constitutionally protected Aboriginal interests, including aboriginal title and an aboriginal right to fish, by diverting water from the Nechako River to provide hydro power to Alcan’s aluminum smelter in Kitimat. The First Nations have aboriginal title along the Nechako River downstream of the dam.
After hearings in Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal, in 2015, Melinda and Greg McDade QC were successful in the Supreme Court of Canada where it was confirmed that First Nations in BC may sue an industry or private company for damaging lands or interfering with their use and occupancy of land and rivers. It also confirmed that common law tort actions such as nuisance and breach of riparian rights can apply on First Nation traditional lands, even where the company holds a permit from the Crown.
“The best part of my job is being able to work in cutting edge law, working directly with First Nations and having a concrete effect on lives of the people I represent,” says Melinda.
Melinda’s path towards working on Aboriginal rights issues was clear to her even when she was an anthropology student. She went to law school to get the tools she needed to be able to act for First Nations. Her advice to law students or new lawyers interested in environmental and aboriginal law is to seek out public interest opportunities as they are well worth the effort and increased hours, and reduced pay, at the junior level.
Also, she says, if you are interested and have a clear perspective of where you want to work, be attentive to finding employment on the side you want to represent as it can be difficult to later switch. There can be a lot conflict issues with First Nations if you work in government, for example.
Read about Melinda’s work here: