Mtre Karina Kesserwan

Mtre Karina Kesserwan: Indigenous issues and Northern challenges

By Mélanie Dugré, lawyer and Chair of the Member Relations Committee
(Article published on June 25, 2019)

The daughter of a Russian mother and a Lebanese father, Karina Kesserwan arrived in Quebec at the age of 10. The young girl, whose mother tongue was Russian, attended a reception class in Saint-Léonard and then continued her schooling in the language of Molière. Karina fell in love right away with Montreal’s public parks and green spaces.

She quickly decided that she wanted to become a lawyer, an aspiration fuelled by her desire to contribute to society and fight inequality. She remembers visits to the municipal library, where she discovered educational pamphlets on the various areas of law, such as housing law, consumer protection law and family law. “I had the complete collection and I devoured the information they contained,” she recalls with a laugh.

Welcomed into McGill University’s Faculty of Law at the end of her college studies at the Collège international des Marcellines in 2003, she particularly enjoyed her university studies and the duality of Canada’s co-existing civil law and common law systems. She took advantage of the opportunities she was offered to think about her options and the various ways that law could contribute to achieving social objectives.

In tandem with her legal education, Karina completed a certificate in Middle East studies, an interest related to her Lebanese roots. During this time, she learned Arabic and also familiarized herself with Islamic law, a legal system fundamentally different from our own.

In 2006, through a friend who was already working there, she joined the small team at O’Reilly & Associés, a boutique law office specializing in Aboriginal law. A third-year law student at the time, Karina was impressed by Mtre O’Reilly’s dedication to the Aboriginal cause. To this day, Karina Kesserwan says he is one of her major influences, on account of his passion and dedication in defending principles of fundamental justice.

Having worked on important files in mining litigation, Karina decided to do graduate work in ethics at Université de Sherbrooke in order to place her reflections on justice in a more philosophical context. In 2009, while she was completing this certificate and her articling, Karina left for Quebec City, where new challenges awaited her.

For the following three years, she acted as a political advisor to Pierre Corbeil and Geoffrey Kelley during their respective terms as Minister Responsible for Indigenous Affairs. “The political toolbox is much more fully equipped than the legal one, which means we can broaden our horizons and have a significant impact for communities,” explains Mtre Kesserwan. She singled out the consummate skill and experience of many public servants as well as access to government resources in order to find solutions to the challenges experienced by Indigenous communities. She was therefore called upon to examine the Indigenous reality in terms of health, education, access to housing and public infrastructure. During her term of office, Karina was inspired by the sheer size of the territories, these immense spaces that she flew over in small planes. She was touched by the welcome she received from the communities and by the spirit of cooperation between their leaders and government representatives. In contrast to litigation, where diverging interests clash, healthy communication is built between the various stakeholders whose common objective is to find lasting solutions.

After three years in the whirlwind of Quebec politics, Karina chose to expand her horizons by studying for a Master’s in sociology in Sudbury, where she also taught administrative law and constitutional law at Laurentian University’s Department of Law and Justice. As part of her Master’s studies, Karina had to study the Ring of Fire development project, put forward by the Ontario government, and to compare it with Quebec’s Plan Nord project. This exercise allowed her to see that governance models must give Indigenous communities the power to make decisions in order to promote the success of their collaboration on these major projects.

Life brought Karina Kesserwan back to Montreal in 2013, where she found that it was difficult to join an existing firm because of her specific specialty and the slowdown in Plan Nord mandates. No problem! She decided to start up her own firm! Her objective was clear: represent the interests of different Indigenous communities and help companies that want to start up a business in northern Quebec to do so in a manner that respects the value of the communities. As a result, Karina carries out mandates for hospitals, municipalities, cultural centres and various business players.

Having moved away from litigation, she particularly enjoys the area of project management where major achievements spring from small ideas. She considers herself privileged to be able to support Indigenous communities and their business partners in the development of these projects.

Obviously, managing a firm brings its share of challenges through which Karina must manoeuvre in order to maintain a balance between day-to-day tasks and her passion for the law, while acting pro bono in certain mandates she cares most about.

When asked about her future aspirations, Karina Kesserwan shares her hope that a growing number of lawyers will take an interest in and contribute to Northern and Indigenous issues in order to improve access to justice in their communities. She also hopes to find time to return to teaching, a discipline she particularly enjoys, as it allows her to go back to the roots of law and question its foundations.

Recently named a Top 100 Winner of Canada’s Most Powerful Women by the Women’s Executive Network, and a finalist at the 2019 edition of the Mercuriades contest in the Newcomer and Woman of Exception category, Karina Kesserwan has the wind in her sails and both feet on the ground, and her heart belongs to the North.