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Reconciliation: Legal Education and the Legal Profession – University of Ottawa’s Emerging Response to Call to Action #28

Prior to European contact, Indigenous Peoples of what later became Canada lived in communities with a diversity of political systems, legal traditions, and laws. These Indigenous legal orders guided how First Nations conducted commerce, maintained peace, and negotiated treaties. Recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada, these traditions have become a part of the Canadian legal landscape.


As Canada works toward reconciliation, it is important that historical laws and norms are accurately reflected to inform the relationship between Canada and Indigenous Peoples. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)’s Calls to Action (CTA) #28 highlights the importance of education in Indigenous legal history, intercultural competency, and conflict resolution. The CTA tasks law schools to reflect Canada’s legal pluralism in their curriculum.


In partnership with Indigenous experts, the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law, through its Indigenous Legal Traditions Committee (ILT) presented the first practical response to CTA 28, anticipating a necessary rejigging of the law school curriculum. This preliminary effort was translated and delivered in a new module which provided first-year law students with an introduction to Indigenous learning. The three-day intensive experience which was strongly recommended to all first-year law students and professors explored First Nations legal history and customs through the lens of the Anishinaabe “Seven Grandfather Teachings”. The unique teachings were both an opportunity and experience for the students and their professors to consider the importance of the TRC, the adoption and implementation of the CTA and the relationship of the entire reconciliation program with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Learners were tasked with how legal professionals and legal education can meaningfully contribute to reconciliation. The focus of the module was on three thematic strands of the teachings:


Debwewin — Truth

“Though the journey might be slow, there is a need to move forward as you have not made it to the destination”.


For Canadians looking to start a reconciliatory journey, TRC’s CTA is the compass of sorts.  It is necessary and pragmatic that legal professionals be intentional in reading, understanding and committing to implement the TRC’s Calls to Action. The CTA flow from the mandate and imperative to facilitate reconciliation among former students of the Indian residential schools, their families, their communities and indeed all Canadians and the Canadian state. Through an interactive workshop hosted and resourced by uOttawa Law Faculty members, the Debwewin (truth) sub-module explored the origins and breadth of the TRC’s CTA. It provided a sample range of diverse areas of public life that require deliberate acts and programs of reconciliation. The 94 CTAs, among other considerations, draw attention to the need to invest in and recognize procedures that respect, implement and mainstream the UNDRIP into all aspects of modern Indigenous life. From media and sports to business and education, there is no industry or public sector that cannot find some truths about the long journey that Canadian society must embark on in pursuit of reconciliation.


Dabasendizowin — Humility

“Praise the accomplishments of all, balance your worth with all creations”.


We learn about the past through structures which prioritizes certain people and events over others. And the choices that historians make when recording history are not without implications. There are areas of Canadian history, and that are, and have been, and are being neglected. Through a detailed examination of the changing historical records used as evidence in Canadian courts, this sub-module delivered by Indigenous Professor and ILT Committee member outlined the evolving use of historical records as evidence in Canadian courts. The module demonstrates that it is only in the last few decades that historians began to take a serious look at Indigenous records, maintained through oral history. Given the depth of understanding required to decode and interpret oral histories, it is not surprising that the courts, and the colonial adversarial legal systems, have an ethnohistorian problem that accounts for the justice deficit for Indigenous Peoples. The humility module emphasized that if the legal system is to change and become fair for all peoples, then future lawyers should have all the knowledge they can. To allow for reconciliation between the justice system and Aboriginal peoples, the limits of our current historical record must be acknowledged, and humility must characterize and inform the way  the past is interpreted.


Zaagi’idiwin — Love

“A focus on peace with yourself, balance in life and acceptance of all things and graciousness with the creator”.


In addition to students gaining a greater understanding of Indigenous laws and legal orders, emphasis was added to the values that underpin these customs, as well as their meaningful application to Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination. The legal community has played an active role in the dispossession and disenfranchisement of colonized peoples. Through the love module, students explored decolonizing the law through an understanding of the Indigenous principles to living. It is important to recognize that the ideals, principles, and aspirations of Indigenous communities are uniquely expressed in their own languages. Using the Misipawistik Cree Nation as an entry point, the community elder, who steered this sub-module,  translated her nation’s guiding principles which include sakihiwewin, love, mino wicihiwewin, acts of service, and kehtawenihtamowin, thinking like elders. The module never directly contrasted Indigenous legal order and principles with colonial laws, traditions and values, but such juxtaposition could not be avoided. Devoid of punishment, violence and control, the teachings illustrated how value systems, whether acknowledged or not, guide how legal orders are developed.


The three-day course is only a sneak peek into how the uOttawa Faculty of law is testing curriculum rejig pursuant to CTA #28.  As with the case across legal education in Canada, the legal academy and, by extension ,the legal profession appear to have wakened to the reality of decolonization and inclusion in legal curriculum. As well, they are rising to the imperative to redress Canada’s long-suppressed multi-juridical status.  This initiative is only exploratory and soul-searching baby steps in pragmatically and prudently engaging and imagining the place of Indigenous legal traditions in Canadian legal architecture. The new generation of Canadian lawyers post-TRC CTA are on the historic cusp in the quest to implement reconciliatory acts in personal, institutional and much-needed professional settings. Let us go.


Thank you to Luke Swinson (@LukeSwinsonArt) for the use of his Seven Grandfather Teachings images.

Written by Chidi Oguamanam, Miranda Minassian

Dr. Chidi Oguamanam is the Principal Investigator at ABS Canada. He is a Full Professor affiliated with the Centre for Law, Technology, and Society, the Centre for Environmental Law and Global Sustainability, and the Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics at the University of Ottawa.

Miranda Minassian is J.D. Candidate in the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law Common Law Program. She completed a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Guelph College of Social and Applied Human Sciences. She is interested in issues of Indigenous sovereignty, traditional knowledge, and contemporary IP rights. For nearly four years, Miranda worked in rural Cambodia, developing, and maintaining ethical tourism partnerships and learning Khmer.