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Aurum Awards 2019: Heather McNeill (LLB '94)

Heather McNeill (LLB '94). (Provided photo)
Heather McNeill (LLB '94). (Provided photo)

This article was originally published by Dalhousie Alumni as part of their Aurum Awards coverage.

When most people retire, they take up a hobby, or travel the world. Not Heather McNeill (LLB’94). Since winding down a 21-year career as a Dalhousie Legal Aid lawyer, McNeill has been, as she puts it, “working full time plus-plus” as Legal Advisor of the Enhanced Child Family Initiative at the Mi’kmaq Rights Initiative Negotiation Office, and with several community initiatives and organizations. And it is clear she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I believe the Creator has put me on the earth to serve and I get great pleasure out of that,” McNeill says. “Sometimes, I’m helping in small ways. Sometimes, it’s something bigger. But anything I can do to help make this world better, I will do.”

Inspired by the example set by her mother, who always extended herself to help those in need, McNeill continues to exemplify true Weldon Tradition in her devotion to making a difference, particularly for First Nations communities in Nova Scotia. The Millbrook Band member is a board member with Tawaak Housing, which is helping Aboriginal peoples in securing affordable shelter off the reserve. She is a member of the Indigenous Blacks & Mi'kmaq Initiative Advisory Council and the IB&M Standing Committee at the Schulich School of Law. She is also putting her Dalhousie background to good use with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission working group at the Nova Scotia Barrister’s Society and, perhaps most notably, with the Mi’kmaq Rights Initiative, supporting Mi’kmaq efforts to develop a governance model for Mi’kmaq child welfare in Nova Scotia.

“This is profound,” McNeill says. “The way the current child welfare system operates does not work for Mi’kmaq communities because it does not always keep our children in our communities, so they maintain their sense of culture, identity, and language. It is the intent of the Mi’kmaq to have full jurisdiction over these matters and that will enable us to look at ways to better support our Mi’kmaq families, caregivers, and children to make that happen.”

McNeill’s work has earned her a 2019 Aurum Award, which recognizes alumni for their outstanding achievements, community leadership, and contributions to the social, cultural, and economic well-being of society. For her, such recognition is an opportunity to inspire others.

“I have always believed you lead by example,” she says. “When people see or know that you are doing what is right or what is needed, they might follow in your footsteps. That’s what’s important to me – to see others pick up that thread.”

For that reason, McNeill is not quite ready to fully embrace retirement just yet. She wants a more equitable society – one where First Nations youth are encouraged and supported in getting the learning they need to succeed in any career they want.

“We should be everywhere,” McNeill says. “We should be educated and part of not only Nova Scotia’s fabric but also Canada’s. That is happening. I look at these young, energetic superstars and I feel optimistic about my people’s future.”