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Aboriginal Centred Curricula: Weaving Reconciliation into Legal Studies

With the movement towards reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, law schools have been called upon to develop Indigenous-sensitive curriculums and mechanisms that facilitate Indigenous participation within the legal profession. Lakehead University’s Bora Laskin Faculty of Law has taken the lead in this area: not only have they become the first law school to make Aboriginal Law and Indigenous Legal Traditions mandatory courses, they have also created a new position, Director of Indigenous Relations, and have appointed Gilbert Deschamps to fill this role. This post explores some of the creative ways Lakehead integrated their new Director of Indigenous Relations into the administration and day-to-day operations of the law school in an effort to shed light on how similar positions might be implemented at other law school’s across Canada.


Brief Biography: Gilbert Deschamps

Professor Gilbert Deschamps hails from Nipigon, Ontario, and is a member Red Rock Indian Band (Lake Helen Reserve), an Ojibwe First Nation in Northern Ontario, as well as the Wolf Clan. He holds a Juris Doctor from the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Law, and a Bachelor of Arts in Social Anthropology from Lakehead University.


Throughout his career, Professor Deschamps has continually served Indigenous peoples in many different capacities. He has served as a policy analyst with numerous Indigenous organizations, including the Assembly of First Nations, and also with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (now Indigenous and Northern Affairs). Most recently, Professor Deschamps has served as a Band Councilor with Red Rock Indian Band, holding portfolios in Justice and Policy, Education, and Band Administration. Finally, he maintains a private practice in Thunder Bay, focusing on criminal defense, family law, wills and estates, and aboriginal law.


Director of Indigenous Relation: Roles & Responsibilities

Professor Deschamps’ role as Director of Indigenous Relations is to work closely with the Dean, the Office of Admissions and Recruitment, the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives, and the faculty’s Indigenous Advisory Committee. He assists in developing and implementing operational plans in the following areas:

  1. Indigenous Outreach;
  2. Recruitment, Retention, and Admissions;
  3. Indigenous Support; and
  4. The university’s Aboriginal Perspectives course

Indigenous Outreach

Professor Deschamps is tasked with reaching out to, and engaging with prospective Indigenous students, communities and organizations. His role is to ensure that Indigenous peoples across Canada (with a focus on Northern Ontario) know about the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law and its emphasis on Aboriginal Law and Indigenous Legal Traditions. As Director, Professor Deschamps must utilize his existing relationships, while also building new relationships within the Indigenous legal community, to address current and emerging Indigenous legal issues—such as Access and Benefit Sharing over genetic resources. In turn, he helps ensure the school’s curriculum reflects both historical and contemporary issues. Further, he organizes speaker panels and presentations on Indigenous legal issues.


Recruitment, Retention, and Admissions

Professor Deschamps is also tasked with recruiting and retaining Indigenous students. In this capacity, he attends Aboriginal Post-Secondary Information Recruitment events and relevant LSAC events. Also, he conducts seminars on the faculty’s admission requirements for prospective Indigenous students, and further, he develops outreach plans for Indigenous high school students. His goal is to promote the faculty’s program and career opportunities in law, in general. Finally, Professor Deschamps develops promotional and marketing materials aimed at Indigenous students, which are further reflected in the law school’s overall communications plan, and recruitment strategies.


Much of Professor Deschamps’ role targets retention of Indigenous students that have already been admitted into the faculty. His role in this capacity is so essential because the rigors of law school, especially first year, are very strenuous. Having an individual dedicated to ensuring Indigenous students have the additional tools and support needed to enjoy and succeed at law school is critical to their long term success.


Lastly, Professor Deschamps provides operational support to the faculty’s admissions body and assists the faculty’s admissions in strategic planning.


Indigenous Support

As Director of Indigenous Relations, Professor Deschamps also provides timely, meaningful, and culturally relevant support to Indigenous students enrolled at the faculty. Given the disproportionate number of non-Indigenous to Indigenous students in law schools, these support services are fundamental to ensuring students someone with whom they can engage in an environment of understanding and trust. As an Indigenous law student, I can attest that sometimes the only person you can really speak to is someone with a similar lived reality.


Professor Deschamps also assists Indigenous students with finding legal placements and career opportunities once they graduate. Given his ties to the Indigenous legal and policymaking community, he is a significant asset that will surely benefit current and future Indigenous students. Further, Gilbert is tasked with communicating and networking with other law schools for events, campaigns and further academic and professional development.


Aboriginal Perspectives Course

Finally, Deschamps is the Professor for Bora Laskin Faculty of Law’s Aboriginal Perspectives Course. The course is mandatory for 1Ls and requires them to commit a prescribed number of hours to participating in Indigenous traditional activities and legal seminars. Professor Deschamps’ role is to manage the course by inviting guest speakers on Indigenous legal topics, Indigenous culture and history, and cultural awareness within the legal profession. Recently, the Lakehead Law Dean, Professor Anglique EagleWoman and Professor Descahamps co-hosted a one-day legal workshop offered by ABS Canada, titled: “Reconciling Traditions: a legal workshop on access and benefit sharing, indigenous traditional knowledge, and biodiversity.” The workshop was approved for student credit in the Aboriginal Law Perspectives Course, and provided an exciting opportunity for researchers, legal practitioners, and indigenous law students to explore partnerships in curriculum development around traditional knowledge, intellectual property and biodiversity conservation.


Concluding Comments

The position of Director of Indigenous Relations at Lakehead University’s Bora Laskin Faculty of Law represents a bold first step to address the lack of Indigenous representation within the legal profession. The position’s unique structure is laudable because Professor Deschamp has roles and responsibilities cut across multiple administrative capacities, ensuring that an Indigenous perspective is maintained within virtually all of faculty’s institutions and strategic decision-making. Ultimately, the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law’s initiative to establish a Director of Indigenous Relations and appoint Gilbert Deschamps to the position should be seen as an important precedent for law schools across Canada that are committed to our shared national project of reconciliation with this country’s Indigenous peoples.