Several years ago, I made a mistake. In return, I received an invaluable gift.
Teaching jurisprudence for the first time, I assigned Margaret Davies’ wonderful book Asking the Law Question. That was not the mistake! In fact, I love that text and teaching from it was a joy. Davies combines a deep knowledge of legal theory with a narrative voice that brings the salience and joy of ‘doing theory’ to life. The book includes considerable attention to Indigenous legal theory by scholars who live and work in the country we know as Australia, the country where I grew up and received my first legal education. I was glad to have that content (and context) to share with my students at UBC, because I felt it would offer them some sense of how Indigenous scholars elsewhere have grappled with and made sense of colonialism, neo-liberal governance, and violence.
My mistake was to overlook the importance of offering students an Indigenous take on these issues that came from their place and their context. When I taught Australian Indigenous theory to my students, and talked to them about The Ranger Uranium Mine and Jabiluka and about The Aboriginal Tent Embassy, I hoped to open conversations about the similarities and differences between settler colonialism and Indigenous resistance as it played out in Australia and in Canada. However, many of my students – at a time before UBC had implemented its Aboriginal constitutional law module – lacked the context and the history of Canadian colonialism that would have made these comparisons meaningful.
More importantly, for my Indigenous students, studying Indigenous legal theory and examples that originated in Australia was deeply frustrating: they had looked to this course as an opportunity to read and discuss some of the brilliant work by Indigenous scholars who belong to Indigenous communities in Canada and work in this space. They also wanted to read work by non-Indigenous scholars who have written thoughtfully and knowledgeably about Indigenous people and the Canadian legal system.
The gift I received was that three of my Indigenous students decided to discuss their concerns with me. They explained why they felt frustrated by the reading and discussion we’d had under the umbrella of “Indigenous legal theory”. They asked me to reconsider for the following year.
I will always be grateful to those students for having the courage to speak to me. It is not an easy thing to challenge one’s professor. Even less so when the thing you are challenging them about is something that is fundamentally important to you.
In preparation for the coming year, I have been reading Sheila Cote-Meek, Colonized Classrooms: Racism, Trauma and Resistance in Post-Secondary Education. This book, and a recent article in This (The Canoe and the Ship) have reminded me that post-secondary education is too often an exclusionary experience for Indigenous students. My reading makes me value my students’ willingness to engage in dialogue with me even more.
I can only hope that in my response to them, I acknowledged their courage and the gift they were giving me by reaching out to me.
After their visit, I pulled books from my shelves and articles from my database. Anyone who has taught will understand the care with which we select the one or two pieces we ask students to read, and the dismay with which we set eight or ten pieces aside for every one we set. After much mulling, I decided to defer the planned syllabus for two classes and to ask students to read two pieces:
The conversations we had about these two pieces were some of the best we had all term. We all learned a great deal that week – perhaps me most of all.
Reconciliation is a hopeful word. A word that promises a way of doing things that will bring people together with shared respect and a sense that we all have much to learn. It is a word that challenges those of us with relative power – professors and teachers – to adjust our way of doing and being educators.
As we begin a new academic year, and seek to enrich and deepen the #Reconciliationsyllabus, my reconciliation includes being open to hearing from those who have the courage to make things better, and being open to changing course in response to what I am learning.