An unexpected phone call in May 2019 changed Evelyn Baxter's life.
When she answered, the woman on the line identified herself as then Attorney General Caroline Mulroney. Mulroney told Evelyn that she was no longer a lawyer—she'd been appointed a judge of the Ontario Court of Justice.
"At first I thought it was a prank call," Evelyn laughs.
When she realized it wasn't a joke, she was overcome with emotion. What followed next was a whirlwind of activity undergoing initial training and winding up her previous work chairing the Grassy Narrows & Islington Band Mercury Disability Board in Kenora. This is the board that administers disability pensions for people poisoned by mercury dumped in the English and Wabigoon River systems by two paper companies—an environmental and human catastrophe that began in the 1960s.
Then, on July 8, 2019, she was officially sworn in as a judge and became known as the Honourable Justice Evelyn Baxter. Her swearing-in was a combination of the court's usual format enhanced with Anishnaabe tradition and ceremony.
"As a lawyer, being appointed to the bench can be the epitome of one's career. It was my aspiration," she says.
This wasn't just a personal achievement for Evelyn, who is from the Marten Falls First Nation and grew up in and around Thunder Bay.
I'm the first Indigenous person from the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) appointed to the bench.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation represents 49 First Nations communities in Northwestern Ontario, including Marten Falls. As far as she is aware, in 1993, Evelyn became the first member of a NAN community to be called to the bar in Ontario.
"I come informed from my upbringing as an Indigenous person," she says, "and it's important for First Nations communities to see other Indigenous people working in the justice system."
As a judge, Evelyn spends most of her time presiding over criminal, family, and child protection matters. She is based in the Kenora court but presides in Fort Frances, Rainy River, and Atikokan when needed.
"In addition, our court travels to many NAN fly-in communities in the north where we usually hold court in community centres and school gyms. It's a unique part of the job."
The idea of entering the legal profession took hold of Evelyn early. As a youngster, one of her favourite TV shows was the law school drama The Paper Chase.
"It made the law seem fascinating, and I announced to my parents that I was going to be a lawyer, although I don't even know if I knew what a lawyer was," she says.
Her parents always supported Evelyn's path to law school and instilled in her and her sisters the importance of education. Evelyn would go on to study political science with a minor in law at Lakehead, and she credits Lakehead with cementing her desire to become a lawyer.
"I have fond memories of my undergraduate days. Lakehead was the perfect choice for me because I was still young and not quite ready to leave home to attend university," she explains.
Evelyn subsequently earned a law degree at Queen's University in 1991 and then spent the next 10 years in Toronto. She primarily practiced criminal law and, even at this early stage of her legal career, became a tireless advocate for Indigenous and social issues as well as Aboriginal and treaty rights. Her goal was to redress injustices faced by Indigenous people and to create a more compassionate society for all Canadians.
Evelyn worked in legal and political advisory positions with, and for, Nishnawbe Aski Nation for over 25 years. She was also the Nishnawbe-Aski Legal Services executive director and chaired Chiefs' assemblies for the Chiefs of Ontario and Nishnawbe Aski Nation. In addition, she was an adjudicator with the Ontario Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, which compensates victims of crime for losses or injuries they sustained.
At Evelyn's swearing-in ceremony, former NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler (left) presented her
with a special gift. When she's not working, Evelyn likes to spend time with friends and family.
She also enjoys travelling, reading, crocheting, and baking.
"Lakehead gave me my foundational start, so I wanted to give back in some way," she says.
Evelyn has forged a legacy at the national level as an adjudicator with the Indian Residential Schools Independent Assessment Process. She travelled across Canada from 2009 to 2019 listening to the testimony of residential school survivors and determining the level of compensation they would receive for abuses they suffered while students at these schools.
It's noteworthy that the Baxter family commenced one of the first national class actions that led to the residential school settlement.
"Although my grandparents, my mother, and my aunts and uncles, as well as many cousins, were sent to residential schools, I didn't expect to hear the things that I heard—the cruelty of it," she says.
An essential component of Evelyn's role was to encourage and approve healing plans for survivors. This allowed them to receive counselling and therapy and ensured they could buy medical equipment to cope with physical, sexual, or psychological injuries inflicted upon them as children.
"We adjudicators heard around 40,000 stories," Evelyn says. "It gave me more insight into people's traumas and why they behave the way they do. It explains what I'm seeing in my courtroom in the people that come before me. It's intergenerational trauma, and it's pervasive."
Some of the survivors sent her heartfelt letters telling her that by listening and believing them, she had made a difference in their lives. Today, she sees many people continuing to struggle with social and family issues, mental health, and addictions. That's why Evelyn wants to use her role as a judge to be an instrument for change.
"We must find a better way to address these issues before they're criminalized and wind up in a courtroom because by the time people come to court, the damage has been done. We can't lose sight of the human beings who are suffering."