Small Steps on the Path Towards Reconciliation at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law

WLMC.jpg_Page_1_Image_0002Sarah Morales and Angela Cameron

The University Of Ottawa Faculty Of Law has been collectively working towards understanding and implementing the Recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Report, released on Dec, 15, 2015. We have had long discussions and debates in large groups and small, in formal settings such as faculty retreats, and over intimate meals with smaller groups. We have not always agreed on how to move forward, and have tossed around various models, ideas and plans. Lead by our Indigenous faculty; Tracey Lindberg,  Larry Chartrand, Sarah Morales and Darren O’Toole, we have learned to live with the fact that our approach may not be perfect as we start out, but that we are committed to refining our plan or even changing paths as we learn more.

In anticipation of the release of the final report we invited Indigenous scholars to participate in the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Series and focus their remarks on Indigenous law and legal traditions.  Dr. Ray Austin gave a lecture on November 10th, 2016 focusing on the movement to develop tribal courts and tribal law as effective means of modern self-government.  His remarks specifically addressed the complicated task of using traditional Navajo values to address contemporary legal issues.  Prof. John Borrows also gave an inspiring talk on Nov. 17th, 2015. His remarks focused on Indigenous methodologies in teaching and he spoke about his approaches which incorporate being on the land, and learning Indigenous laws in the places that they are forged.

On February 17, 2016 we held a talking circle, let by Elder Claudette Commanda of the Algonquin Nation. The circle included interested Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, professors and staff members. This circle helped us to shape the terms of reference for a key step: hiring an Indigenous Affairs Co-ordinator. The Co-ordinator is intended to provide cultural and academic support for our Indigenous students, and assist and lead faculty in our reconciliation project. We are excited to welcome Katherine Koostachin of Attawapiskat First Nation to the faculty on July 27th, 2016 as our Indigenous Affairs Co-ordinator.

Following the circle we continued to discuss the challenges we faced on the road to de-colonisation. It became clear that many individual professors were already consciously teaching in a de-colonising frame, or were including Indigenous laws and legal orders in their course materials. Following the release of the Final Report and recommendations in December, 2015 we began to develop the outlines of an approach to reconciliation at a faculty level. We have set up a small group of first year professors, covering all courses, who are committed to incorporating either a de-colonising lens or Indigenous laws and legal orders in a clear and unambiguous way into their courses. This includes our mandatory legal research and writing and dispute resolution courses. A small cohort of self- selected first year students will follow this reconciliation curriculum. *We have hired research assistants to support professors in developing or deepening course materials, and have organised a reading and discussion group of these self-selected professors to learn together. This group of professors also participated, on June 6th, 2016, in a workshop on Indigenous legal methodology with Hadley Freidland of the Indigenous Law Research Unit at the University of Victoria Faculty of Law. We were joined by Prof. Jeff Hewitt (Cree Nation) of the University Of Windsor Faculty of Law who participated as an invited expert.

This first year ‘pilot project’ will provide us with a starting point to evaluate our approach, and consider introducing some or all aspects to a larger part of the student population.

We continue, of course, to offer a large number of excellent upper year courses taught by Indigenous faculty that treat Indigenous laws and legal orders, Aboriginal law, and reconciliation as their core subject matter.

At a broader faculty level we invited Prof. Rebecca Johnson to our faculty retreat in April, 2016. Rebecca brought a methodology to the larger faculty audience that makes the TRC recommendations easy to access and teach, and provided us with a number of excellent pedagogical entry points. The workshop was hailed ‘the best retreat ever’. In particular faculty loved the way Rebecca’s methodology opened the TRC recommendations to private and public law scrutiny, and built on professors’ existing subject matter knowledge. It also demonstrated that there is so much to teach and learn about within the TRC that does not require us to magically and suddenly develop a deep knowledge of Indigenous laws and legal orders- which can at times be a very intimidating proposal for non-Indigenous faculty.

Finally, our first year orientation will also feature a reconciliation theme. Prof. John Borrows will address the entire first year class, and all first years will participate in two important workshops: 1) an introduction to law that places Indigenous laws and legal orders on the same footing as common and civil law and 2) an overview of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

*This relatively small cohort will also take some classes within larger groups. In these larger groups, as a result, more students will be exposed to the reconciliation curriculum by default.