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A helping hand in legal aid

- August 7, 2014

Heather MacNeill (Lisa Neily photo, NSBS)
Heather MacNeill (Lisa Neily photo, NSBS)

When you first meet Heather MacNeill (Law class of ’94), it’s hard to miss her positive attitude and giving spirit.

“I have a passion to help others make a difference,” says the local Mi'kmaq woman, who embraces what's known in the Schulich School of Law as the "Weldon tradition" of unselfish public service.  

Last month, the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society (NSBS) named MacNeill its Distinguished Service Award winner for 2014, celebrating her more than two decades of giving back to the community through law. The award, presented annually, recognizes someone who has made "long-term, exceptional volunteer contributions to the legal profession and the Society."

MacNeill was thrilled to discover she was the winner for this year.

“I got the call from the NSBS on a Friday afternoon, and it made my weekend!" she says. "Receiving this award means — on both a personal and professional level ­— that the efforts I have made over the past 20 years as a lawyer and a community advocate are noteworthy and they truly matter.”

Commitment to community

MacNeill has been a lawyer with Dalhousie Legal Aid Service for the past 17 years. She helps provide legal aid for those who would otherwise not be able to obtain assistance and she works with the clinical students as an advisor and provides legal leadership. On top of her work with the clinic, she has made a strong commitment to helping improve the Halifax community through thousands of hours of volunteer work.

“The most rewarding part of my community work is being able to use my legal education and experience to help individuals and community groups realize meaningful change and outcomes from my small contribution to their challenges," she explains.

MacNeill gives back to her community through a number of avenues. She’s a member of the Indigenous Blacks & Mi'kmaq Initiative Advisory Council and the IB&M Standing Committee at the Schulich School of Law. She also provides pro bono legal services through Immigrant Settlement & Integration Services, is a member of the Minister's Advisory Committee on Child Welfare and a board member for the Tawaak Housing Association and the Nova Scotia Health Promotion Clearinghouse.

Building connections

MacNeill believes that helping to build a community is one of the most important things she can do with her time. This drive stems from the amazing support she received when she was just beginning her career in law.

“I have had the good fortune of being cared for by my community," she explains. "I am a member of the Millbrook First Nation, who supported me 100 per cent in my efforts to obtain a law degree. My band funded my legal education which allowed me, as a single parent, to raise my daughter and concentrate on my studies without worrying constantly about finances. I am extremely grateful for that opportunity. I believe it is my responsibility to give back to community for all of the generosity I have had bestowed on me.”    

A former commissioner with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, McNeill has served on many boards including: the Mi'kmaq Justice Institute, the Legal Information Society of Nova Scotia, and as former board president with the Mi'kmaq Native Friendship Centre. She has also been a key member of the Aboriginal Justice Committee and volunteers with the Nova Scotia Barrister’s Society.

MacNeill says that she could never have succeeded as an advocate and community leader without her network of support.

“I could not have attained this place in my career without the tremendous support and encouragement of Dalhousie Legal Aid Service, our executive director, Donna Franey, the wonderful colleagues and staff I work with, along with the overwhelming support I received from Dean Kim Brooks for the work we do at the clinic."

Not to mention, her family: "They are the ones who put up with my late nights at work, and community participation at night and on weekends. My work takes me away from them, but they support me in all that I do, and for that I am grateful.”

The 2014 Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society Distinguished Service Award will be presented on September 19 at the society’s annual recognition reception.


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