Gavin Cazon-Wilkes receives Hon. Cecilia Johnstone Equality Award

Third-year Dehcho Dene law student celebrated for leading with purpose

Sarah Kent - 28 March 2023

Empowering Indigenous youth has been a driving force for third-year law student Gavin Cazon-Wilkes, who has been recognized with the 2023 Hon. Cecilia Johnstone Equality Award.

The award is presented to a graduating student who has made an outstanding contribution to social equality in the community or at law school.

“For me, I came into law school wanting to be a representative of my nation back in the Northwest Territories — the Liidlii Kue First Nation — be engaged in equality and equity initiatives, while maintaining Indigenous advocacy in all the communities I am a part of,” said Cazon-Wilkes.

The Hon. Cecilia Johnstone Equality Award was presented to Cazon-Wilkes on March 25 by Dean Barbara Billingsley during a banquet for the graduating class. The award was endowed in 2009 by the 1974 alumna's family, friends and colleagues. Justice Cecilia Johnstone died in 2006 after spending much of her legal career fighting for equal rights for those working within the justice system.

"The Faculty of Law is very pleased to name Gavin as this year's recipient of the Cecilia Johnstone Equality Award,” said Dean Billingsley. “As a law student and as chair of the Indigenous Law Students Association, Gavin has devoted huge amounts of time and effort to building a strong sense of community among his fellow students. His passion for equality principles and his compassion for everyone around him is clearly evident in everything he does. He is most deserving of this recognition."

Cazon-Wilkes feels honoured to be recognized, noting that the Faculty’s recognition of his volunteerism “speaks volume to the desire to stand behind the next generations of lawyers.”

Commitment To Community

Through his community involvement, Cazon-Wilkes has organized programs and initiatives that aim to uplift those around him. In his first year of law school, he got involved with Level Justice, a program that encourages Indigenous high school students to pursue law.

One of his best experiences was receiving a card from Indigenous students who had participated in a mock trial as part of a Level Justice session. On that card, students expressed a desire to pursue law school because Cazon-Wilkes had inspired them.

“Those notes and that card really stuck with me, because I love inspiring Indigenous youth, providing them space for opportunities, and it especially means a lot when they become excited to participate in making the legal system a more equal and equitable space,” said Cazon-Wilkes.

During his second year, he spoke as an invited guest on a panel at the TakingItGlobal Indigenous National Event, which served to encourage Indigenous youth to engage with their communities.

His advocacy work also extended to a consultation roundtable with the federal minister for women and gender equality and youth, Marci Ien. In that session, Cazon-Wilkes advocated for programming and funding for positive community-building opportunities for Indigenous youth across the country.

He has also held leadership positions with the Indigenous Law Students’ Association for all three years of law school, most recently as chair. During his tenure as chair, he spearheaded a constitutional change to ILSA with the creation of a chair/co-chair structure, which replaced the previous presidential model.

Within the walls of the Law Centre, Cazon-Wilkes has taken the lead in bringing about positive change. Most recently, he co-created a lending library housed in the Wahkohtowin Law and Governance Lodge where students can access textbooks. He also partnered with 4B Harm Reduction Society to house Naloxone kits in the lodge.

Cazon-Wilkes serves as a director at large for the Old Strathcona Youth Society and will continue that role after law school.

Path To Law

Law school was not always on Cazon-Wilkes’ radar as a path for him to create a better future for those around him.

“I actually didn’t even want to finish high school when I was a teenager,” said Cazon-Wilkes. “I found education quite difficult and I didn’t know if I belonged in any level of education. But I loved drama class, which led me to take a Bachelor of Arts in Drama and Philosophy where I was able to use the stage as a medium for Indigenous advocacy by bringing to the audience through the stage social issues, equality issues, and equity issues Indigenous Peoples and communities face from a northern Dehcho Dene perspective”.

His advice for that next generation?

“You belong here. Your voice, your life experiences, and your perspective are necessary to the required change in this profession. There will be challenges along the way, personally, academically, and professionally, but there will always be people out there who will stand behind you; I would not be here now, nearing the end of my degree and ready to graduate if it was not for the wonderful allies and advocates who have stood behind me, beside me, and in front of me. With a more diverse Bar, diverse body of lawyers, legal academics and diverse study body, we can continue to create a more equal and equitable profession towards a better collective mindset. We all have knowledge, and yours is important here too. Mahsi Cho/thank you.”