Mary McAuley is no stranger to the complications of the legal system.

“I went through a couple of battles myself, legal battles, and it was such a hard system to try to understand,” said McAuley.

Wishing there was a lawyer who could help her break down the legal jargon, McAuley eventually decided to become a lawyer herself. She quit her long-time job at Key Lake and went to law school at the University of Saskatchewan. McAuley, who is originally from Cumberland House, has now been in private practice in Prince Albert for two years, and runs an Aboriginal-minded law firm out of a downtown building that she restored with her husband.

McAuley deals with mostly criminal law, and most of her clients are Aboriginal – a connection she says she sees too often in the courtroom.

“It’s the same issue all the time. For me, when I watch this, because they are my people, it really hits me. I feel bad. Why doesn’t this change?”

She says the first step is getting clients to have faith in the system, and sometimes, that’s as easy as speaking the same language. In her case, that language is Cree.

“I probably wasn’t saying anything different than any other lawyer that they were talking to,” says McAuley, describing an instant connection with clients when they discovered she was fluent in Cree. “Now they are thinking, ‘Oh! We can trust her because she’s one of us.’ ”

The Program of Legal Studies for Native People at the University of Saskatchewan College of Law is working to produce more law students who speak native languages, as well as increase the number of Aboriginal professionals in the legal field. The program is the only one of its kind in Canada.

“There are Aboriginal people who need services in all sorts of areas that the law touches on,” said Ruth Thompson, the director of the program. “It’s much, much easier to take a Cree-speaking person and turn them into a lawyer than to take a lawyer and turn them into a Cree-speaking person.”

A graduate of the program herself, McAuley hopes to expand her firm to eventually have three to five lawyers who practice all types of law. For now, she will continue to measure her success on a case-by-case basis.

“At least if I do my best to make one difference… one person… that’s better than nobody, right?”