No sooner had Patricia Monture graduated from law school than she found herself embroiled in her first legal spat. But it was as a plaintiff, not counsel.
In the summer of 1988, Monture made headlines as far away as Britain and Japan when she filed an action against the attorney-general of Ontario and the Law Society of Upper Canada to avoid having to pledge allegiance to the Queen before being called to the bar.
A newly minted graduate of Queen's University's law school at the age of 29, Monture contended that as a member of a sovereign people, the Mohawk Nation, she should not have to swear an oath to a "foreign" monarch.
It was not an act of disrespect, she insisted, and she had nothing against the Queen. The demand for such a pledge, she argued, violated her rights under the Constitution Act of 1982, which recognizes aboriginal rights, and under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Besides, "the whole concept of an oath is offensive to me," she told The Globe and Mail at the time. "In my culture, we do not distrust people and make them swear to tell the truth. My people carry an eagle's feather to symbolize that they will tell the truth.
"If I lose this case," she vowed, "I will not practise law."
She didn't lose - the Law Society voted in 1992 to make the loyalty oath optional, and she was called to the bar two years after that - but she never did practise law. Instead, she taught the subject at Canadian universities and earned a reputation as a fearless and passionate advocate for aboriginal peoples, especially women, and their place in Canada.
Patricia (Trish) Monture, who was 52 when she died in Saskatoon on Nov. 17 of breast cancer diagnosed three years ago, was a larger-than-life presence among Canadian aboriginals.
She served on virtually every major inquiry, commission and blue-ribbon panel convened on aboriginal issues over the past 20 years, including the seminal Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples of 1993-1994. She also served on the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women and the Task Force on Administrative Segregation, which examined and made recommendations on the use of solitary confinement in Canadian prisons that house men serving two years or more.
"Suffice it to say that Dr. Monture was one of the most authoritative and respected voices for criminal justice transformation and equality in general, and for aboriginal peoples in particular," noted a tribute from her friends.
An abridged version of her curriculum vitae, at 20 pages, overflows with publications, appointments, lectures, consulting work and accolades, including honorary doctorates from Athabaska University and her alma mater, Queen's.
Among her first tasks before students was to point out that every native and Canadian is bound by treaty rights. These were shared agreements and foundations for co-existence, she would say. Her other duty before those unfamiliar with or touchy about nomenclature was to dispel sensitivities about terms: First nations, aboriginal, indigenous, native and Indian are all "imposed words," she felt.
"None of them are our words. None of them express who we are," she once told the National Centre for First Nations Governance. "So I'm not going to engage in a debate about which imposition is less wrong. They're all wrong. They're all colonial."
Though she conceded the word makes many aboriginals cringe, she was most comfortable with "Indian," and wanted to "reclaim" the term. In her own case, she preferred "Mohawk" to reflect her tribal identity, or ideally, "Haudenosaunee." Literally "People of the Longhouse," it's also the traditional name of the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory outside Brantford, Ont., where Monture spent part of a childhood that quickly veered into the stuff of nightmares.