Thinking about “The Law of Evidence” through the Structure of Indigenous Language

My new favourite book

With classes nearly over this term, I happily turned to my “Books to Read!” pile.   At the top of the pile was a new book by Marianne Ignace and Ron Ignace, Secwépemc People, Land and Laws (McGill-Queen’s Press, 2017).

So many of the summers of my life have been spent on the shores of the Shuswap Lake. The smell of the forests, the feel of the winds, sound of the water, the taste of thimbleberries… all that has been imprinted deep in my heart.  I had been looking forward to spending some time with this book, to continue to learn about the history of the land, the people, and the laws of this place that I so love.  I am only into the 4th chapter, but I am not disappointed.  I can already see that this is going to be a book I will be carrying around with me.

In line, then, with my new goal for myself (to do at least one blogpost a week on what I am learning), let me share one of the amazing things I learned today from the this book.  I learned that the Secwepemc Language is an amazing resource for learning about law!  I finished reading Chapter 4 (“Secwepemctsin: The Shuswap Language”) this afternoon, and then spent the next hour walking up and down the halls of the law school, hunting down colleague after colleague to make them listen to what I had learned (Val, Pooja, Jess, Simon, Tim, and Bob have got to hear my enthusiasm first hand!).

The big discovery for me (on p. 138 of the book) was something called “Evidentials”.  This is a form of suffix that does not exist in English grammar.   In Secwepemctsin, as I understand it from the chapter, a suffix can attach to a verb, in a way that lets the speaker tell the listener about the evidentiary support for the statement.  That is, it indicates how the speaker comes to know the truth of the statement:

  1.  from first hand knowledge,
  2. from hearsay (what others have said), or
  3. because there is physical evidence of the action.

In short, as the Ignaces point out here, when people are telling each other about things that happen in the world, they are also sharing information about the evidence that exists for the statements made.

Page 138

Of course, we can share information about evidentiary support in the English language: it is just a matter of adding more detail.  And when it comes to legal action, those evidential details matter a lot: if you appear as a witness in  a common-law court, you will be asked how it is you come to know what you know; the presence of physical evidence to support the claim is alway relevant; there are all sorts of rules to govern hearsay evidence.  That is, there is much to explore around evidentiary rules related to the relevance, credibility, reliability and sources of statements.

But there is something so interesting in how such questions are organized in Secwepemctsin in part through grammar.  Questions of evidence seem to be woven into the structure of speech and thought (rather than being separate questions emerging primarily in the context of formal legal settings.)  An orientation towards evidence is embedded in grammar itself.

What is so beautiful to me (or do I just mean mean ‘surprising’?)  is that the structure of Secwepemctsin itself, as a language, orients itself towards transparency in the  practices of validating knowledge.  Grammatically, people tell each other not only what they know, but HOW they know it.  This means speakers are grammatically required to make (suffix based) choices about the actions they describe, and listeners have the capacity to make choices about further inquiries needed on the basis of what they hear. Given suffixes, they can determine whether to seek further information from others, or to validate information by looking to physical traces to support what they have heard.  Certainly, this requires speakers and listeners to engage their own faculties of reasoning in conversation, by reminding them that all statements have an evidentiary status of some sort.  This is such a sophisticated and nuanced structure of thought.   I have been reading a number of Secwepemc stories in English, and I have a new appreciation for the ways that that the stories, in their original language, would be carrying additional information and nuance.

This encouraged me to go back to the TRC calls to action, and the section on Language.   Call #14 says “We call upon the federal government to enact an Aboriginal Languages Act that incorporates the following principles:

(i) Aboriginal languages are a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society, and there is an urgency to preserve them.

There are interesting challenges in thinking about how each of us is invited to make the TRC Calls to Action “our own”.  Call 14 aims at the federal government, and it asks for legislation:  it is easy to see this call as within purview of others.  And yet, there is something important in acknowledging that we are each in some way called to think about our relationship to the PRINCIPLES that are identified here.  In learning more about Secwepemctsin (the language of the Secwepemc peoples), and about the place of evidentials in that language, I came to appreciate the importance of the principle expressed in TRC Call to Action #14: ‘that Aboriginal languages are a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society’.   There are very good reasons for all Canadians to begin to learn with and about the Indignenous languages of this country.

One starting point might be this book.  Certainly, its discussion of Evidential Suffixes, is a wonderful way to draw insights from Indigenous Language and Indigenous Law into the Evidence Law classroom!  Can’t wait to learn more from what Marianne Ignace and Ron Ignace have brought together in this book!