Integrating property

Among McGill’s responses to the TRC recommendations will be a new property course that will integrate resources from common law, civil law, and indigenous traditions. This mandatory course will replace mandatory courses in Civil Law Property and Common Law Property. The change is part of a wider-scale program renewal – aiming to significantly enhance the student experience through changes to substance and modes of delivery – that we’ll start unrolling in September 2016. Since students won’t take the new course until their second year, we’ll first offer it in 2017-2018. Accordingly, we’re not able yet to give details, but I think our ambitious project is still worth sharing as sister faculties work through appropriate responses to the TRC’s call for action.

The property course will join other integrated or “transsystemic” courses, such as Contractual Obligations, Extra-contractual Obligations, and Family Law, that have formed pillars of the McGill Program since 1999. The new course represents a deepening of our commitment to legal education that crosses traditional boundaries. The course represents a deepening of our commitment in another sense, too, as we haven’t fully realized our ambitions for transsystemic legal education at McGill to reach beyond the traditions of the common law and civil law to embrace others, such as indigenous legal traditions. Property is especially crucial on this point, of course, as the effacement of indigenous conceptions of land use and belonging have played such a central role in colonialism.

Colleagues of mine will give shape to this course during the coming academic year. Already, though, our experience with integrating legal traditions in other courses allows me to offer several observations that I think will apply at McGill and that might be helpful as others reflect, debate, and dream.

First, it doesn’t work to wait until you’re fully ready for such an endeavour before deciding to do it. At a certain point, you have to commit and leap, trusting that you’ll get there and knowing that many of us work better under the healthy pressure that a deadline imposes. It’s a mistake to let perfectionism hobble the exercise.

Second, a course integrating two or more traditions, including indigenous legal traditions, shouldn’t and can’t be only or primarily a functional comparison leading to assessments of what is the ‘better solution’. Instead, it should and can aim to appreciate the traditions’ respective legal cultures, such as their forms of knowledge, evidence, and reasoning.

Third, be cautious about overarching narratives, which risk being simplistic – be they ones of radical difference or of fundamental sameness.

Fourth, it’s important to avoid translating one tradition into the technical vocabulary of the other. Relatedly, there will not be equivalents within one tradition for every legal idea encountered in another. Some students who wish to make comparative charts or tables will occasionally push you to tell them the equivalent so that they can fill in each cell. Sometimes the answer is that there isn’t one, or that we don’t think there is, or that we’re not sure.

Fifth, however you think about your tradition-specific courses, the ambition in an integrated course may well not be comprehensive ‘coverage’. The hope is that students will acquire an appreciation for each tradition and its resources such that they could begin researching and solving problems within it. But you likely will not ‘cover everything’ or even ‘cover everything important.’ Or, as a colleague said to me, maybe you can, but your definition of what is ‘important’ may change radically!

Transsystemic teaching requires humility and a willingness to take risks. It highlights and foregrounds what the study of law can and should be in general. It is a stimulating adventure, one that changes you as it changes your students. The experience at McGill – which we are keen to deepen as we act purposively in response to the TRC – has shown us that the payoff is worth the candle.

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