Diversity in our idea of Family: What is family law?

Teaching family law has its perils — on every issue there is someone in the class who has faced the questions addressed.  This makes teaching some of the questions even harder, particularly questions related to child welfare and child protection, to directly addressing issues of race, Indigeneity and cultural understandings of the best interests of the child.

But I would argue, it is inappropriate to teach an introductory course in family law without paying due attention to the issues of colonialism, particularly in British Columbia.  The legacy of residential schools and the sixties scoop have had profound impacts on Indigenous families, from non-recognition of diverse family forms, to direct intervention to a failure to acknowledge that parenting is a socially and culturally generated practice that can be destroyed.

I have been teaching family law at UVic Law since 2004 using materials that have been generated and edited over many years between family law professors at UVic and UBC.  Primarily the work of Professor Susan B. Boyd (recently retired).  Editing our materials year to year has given us the ability to include diverse media, links to resources like RCAP, and have themselves been a source of conversation.

The course has been taught with colonialism being one of the central themes, particularly in the family formation part of the course, and introduction to the legacy of residential schools is part of the first set of readings.  We have used excerpts from RCAP and the texts of the apologies in the House of Commons, but will work to edit our materials to be inclusive of the TRC Report and Recommendations.

In this short blog post I just want to mention two resources that I have used.  The first is a video that I show when teaching a class on Indigenous child protection.  It is a VHS cassette (an historical artefact for today’s students) produced by the Carrier Sekani Family Services: A Journey Home: Reclaiming our Children, Carrier Sekani Family Services (CSFS), House of Talent Productions, 2005  www.csfs.org  If your library doesn’t have it you can probably get it ILL from UVic Law.  The video tells the story of a bah’lats (a potluck) held by the Carrier Sekani to welcome back into the clans children who had been apprehended and raised outside their communities.

The other readings for the class are Marlee Kline, “Child Welfare Law, ‘Best Interests of the Child’ Ideology, and First Nations” (1992), 30 Osgoode Hall L.J. 375; and annie bunting,“Complicating Culture in Child Placement Decisions” (2004) 16 Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 137.  This enables an open and challenging conversation around the ideologies embedded in our understanding of terminology like “best interests of the child,” questions of essentialism, questions of protocol, and a more embodied response to the questions mostly due to the visual presentation and the powerful words of the elders (with English subtitles).

I have written about using that resource in class here: Gillian Calder, “‘Finally I Know Where I am Going to be From’: Culture, Context and Time in a Look Back at Racine v. Woods” in Kim Brooks, ed., Justice Bertha Wilson: One Woman’s Difference (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009) pp. 173-189.

The second resource is a short story by Thomas King, “The Baby in the Airmail Box” in A Short History of Indians in Canada (Toronto: Harper Collins, 2005) 34-49 at 34-42.  The story is about an Indigenous couple who goes to a Child Placement Office in Alberta to adopt a white baby, while simultaneously a white baby has mysteriously shown up in a box delivered to the local Chief and Counsel.  It is wry and laugh-out-loud funny.  But every year I sit on the edge of the desk and for the last 8 minutes of class I read this short story to an almost silent, holding in their breath class.  At the end of the reading, when there is inevitably laughter, I set up the next class.  In that class the students are required to read a series of difficult adoption cases, including Racine v. Woods.  Thomas King is purposefully playing with stereotypes, and it makes some of the students uncomfortable.  But the goal is to go to the readings thinking carefully and critically about what is not said in those cases.  What kinds of stereotypes and assumptions are at play.  And the following class is inevitably more engaged as a result.

I am very happy to share lecture notes, syllabi from family law, or other materials (gcalder@uvic.ca).  And I am happy to know what family law teachers across the country are doing to respond to the TRC.

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