Xwelíqwiya – The Life of a Stó:lō Matriarch

XweliqwiyaIn a recent conversation, Gillian Calder commented on how helpful she has found the IFLS blog (thanks Sonia Lawrence at Osgoode!), and particularly those posts titled “What we are doing/reading/thinking”.   These posts point/link to interesting texts (without worrying about doing the full out suggestion of how those texts might be used).  The posts do serve to get the creative juices running.  Gillian suggested that folks might consider doing something similar with #ReconciliationSyllabus.

In that spirit, I thought I would share some thoughts on a wonderful new book on my bookshelf: Xwelíqwiya – The Life of a Stó:lō Matriarch.  While I haven’t fully sorted out full teaching materials using the book, I am convinced that it is a powerful resource for those thinking about TRC work in the law school.

The book is about the life of Rena Point Bolton.  Rena Point Bolton is, amongst other things, the mother of Steven Point, British Columbia’s first Indigneous Lieutenant Governor.  Rena is a force of nature herself.

The word “Xwelíqwiya”  in the title is her name in Halq’eméylem , the language of the Stó:lō people.

As the books explains, Stó:lō is the Halq’eméylem word for “river”, and the Stó:lō are the river people. In this case, the lower Fraser River.  In the summer, making the trip from Victoria to the Shuswap, the drive through Abbotsford, Harrison Hot Springs and Chiliwack is in fact a drive through Stó:lō territory (or, Stó:lō tém:éxw).

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Another great resource!

As is all too often the case, the first challenge for me was the limits of my own limited language fluency.  That is, the title.  I was just not sure how to pronounce Rena Point Bolton’s name in Halq’eméylem!  Richard Daly, the other co-author, gives a good approximation of how to do it, while acknowledging the challenges for English speakers, since nearly half of the sounds in the Halq’eméylem language don’t exist in English.  But the book invites the reader to nonetheless plunge in and try.

As an aside, Halq’eméylem has 8 different sounds for what in English is the letter “K”! (click here for a link to an interesting article on the expressive qualities of the language, and here for a link to the First Voices, website, where you can listen to and learn words in the language).  I found myself heading to my bookshelf to flip through my copy (well… the copy I lifted from my mom’s bookshelf?) of the award-winning Stó:lō-Coast Salish Historical Atlas.   It’s another great related resource to check out (click here for a link to a “good reads” review of the book).

But, back to Xwelíqwiya.  I have been practicing saying her name outloud, trying to put the sound of her language into my mouth.   I am still processing the book, but have found myself bringing it up in conversation on a daily basis since completing it.   There is so much in there that is interesting.  For today, here are a few comments.

Firstly, I have been increasingly looking for biographies and life histories of women.   There are some out there, but not nearly enough.  And there are CERTAINLY not enough books out there that engage with the lives of Indigenous women.  This book does that, situating Rena’s life in the flow of both Stó:lō history, and colonial history.  It does so in a way that engages with questions of land, language, lineage, class, marriage, child-raising, economy, culture, politics, and change.  Law is never far from the surface.

What was so remarkable was the way that the book was able to follow this one woman’s life over a period of 90 years in a way that personalized questions of history and politics.  Her story is told in a way that let me both have a sense of proximity to her “voice”, and simultaneoulsy contained the kind of “distance” necessary for a measured appreciation of the depth of her actions, her contributions, and her own learnings.

Second point?  This book left me reflecting on the power of its  two-voiced authorship.  This book was written collaboratively with social anthropologist Richard Daly.  At the beginning of the book, there is a discussion of the practice of joint-authorship used here.  They situate this decision against the background of Salish practices of legal governance: in the context of potlatchs and other important governance work, families will hire a Speaker — that is, someone who will speak publically on behalf of the family (rather than having the family themselves do the speaking).  They make visible that Richard Daly’s role in the project was theorized in this way — his role was very much like that of a Speaker.  There is much to be talked about in terms of the way the authorship of this book is thus an example of Salish practices of legal governance, enacted in a contemporary context, with a non-Stó:lō writer being asked to play a part in what is very much the operationalization of a Stó:lō way of living.

This book is largely written with future Stó:lō readers in mind (Rena says this explicitly), but it is also written in a way that invites the non-Stó:lō reader to join, to listen, and to begin to feel the different rhythms of Stó:lō  life, and to appreciate the power of culture, and of women’s place (historically and in contemporary society) in maintaining, promoting and developing social and legal life.  There is a section at the beginning that talks about the different conventions of reading for Stó:lō and settler readers, and what each can know about the other in order to have a productive conversation.  That was really helpful!

The book itself contains so much nuance and complexity about questions of identity, and of pragmatics, and of strategy.  It helped me get a better appreciation of the many ways that we are all actors in history, and of the many pathways that women have walked, and how sometimes those paths circle back to beginnings.  It also explicitly took up questions of silence — of how Indigenous people (and Indigenous women in particular) have experienced both silence and silencing, and of the politics of silence at different moments in time.  It asks us to understand the different meanings of silence, and to ask when the time might come to change some of our strategies.  Really powerful.

Lots to be said about this book, which I think is another of those must-have books.  It is certainly a true gift to those who are seeking to take up the challenge of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for all Canadians to increase their cultural knowledge. Indeed, six of the Calls to Action place this goal at the centre of calls to “professionals”.  We see acknowledgement of the need for cultural competency in the six calls aimed at:

CallsToActionPDF

  • 23 – Health Care Professionals
  • 24 – Medical and Nursing Schools
  • 27 – Law Societies
  • 28 – Law Schools
  • 57 – Public Servants
  • 92 – The Corporate Sector

I came away from the book having had a taste of what it is to live within a Stó:lō life-world, and the beginnings of an appreciation for the rich history that is written on the land that I live on.  I also have an appreciation for the gift of story, and for this book’s invitation to understand the power and possibility of beginning to live in right-relation.  I love this book, and will be returning to it!  Take a look, and see what you think.   Or, maybe write us a post about something you are looking at these days?   Sharing what we are reading is one way to help us think about the project of decolonizing, and of diversifying the reading lists (particularly the required reading) in our courses.

 

 

 

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Gladue reports in the classroom: a group project from the Nunavut Law Program

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Koojesse Inlet, Iqaluit in late September 2017

Benjamin Ralston – benjamin.ralston@usask.ca

What follows is a brief description of a group project that I put together for a course during the first year of the University of Saskatchewan’s Nunavut Law Program. While the context in which this assignment was created is unique, I hope this post might help spark others’ imaginations as to how a robust discussion of the Gladue analysis might be brought into the classroom.

Unique context

I was part of the team that delivered the first year curriculum of the Nunavut Law Program (NLP) during the 2017/2018 academic year. The NLP students are only now completing the ordinary 1L course load of their Juris Doctor degrees. The first year of their four-year program was something more sui generis. First year courses in the NLP included: Legal Process; Inuit History & Government Relations I & II; Introduction to Research & Research Methods; Writing & Communication I & II; Nunavut Land Claims Agreement I & II; Introduction to Professionalism; and Conflict Resolution & Reconciliation.

This group project was used as an assignment for the Introduction to Research & Research Methods course that I taught in the fall term of 2017. The course provided a general introduction to academic research, as well as an introduction to the unique ways in which research is conducted in legal studies and practice. It canvassed the formulation of research questions and plans, literature reviews, research ethics, methods and methodologies, and some of the tools available for legal and academic research. As the course preceded any black letter coursework, the focus was on ‘law-adjacent’ research rather than standard legal research.

The assignment

The students were assigned to create mock “Gladue reports” in groups of five. A Gladue report is a form of pre-sentencing report for Indigenous offenders that provides sentencing judges with the types of information that they need in order to fulfill their obligations under R v Gladue, [1999] 1 SCR 688, Sentencing judges are obliged to consider:

  1. The unique systemic or background factors which may have played a part in bringing the particular Aboriginal offender before the courts; and
  2. The types of sentencing procedures and sanctions which may be appropriate in the circumstances for the offender because of his or her particular Aboriginal heritage.

I put together this Gladue report assignment in order to have students practise their research skills on a project that was both concrete and clearly relevant to their overall legal education, but without requiring much familiarity with black letter law and legal research. It was an attempt at a problem-based learning exercise that would be open-ended enough to allow for creative responses from each group based on their own background knowledge, perspectives, and interests. I also wanted to encourage them to reflect on what they were learning in their Inuit History & Government Relations course in context to legal process.

The project was assigned on the first day of class. Each group was given a set of facts about a fictional character from one of the regions of Inuit Nunangat: Inuvialuit, Nunavut, Nunavik, or Nunatsiavut. Four of the fictional characters were Inuit and one was a fictional Sayisi Dene woman living within Inuit Nunangat. The fact scenarios for each group were meant to nudge the students in the direction of exploring a diversity of Gladue factors. Some but not all of the fact scenarios directly referenced residential school attendance. Others pointed students in the direction of examining how the Gladue analysis might relate to community relocations, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), the child welfare system, out-adoption, and contemporary racism.

One major constraint on the project was that it would be difficult for students to employ the primary research method used by Gladue report writers: in-person interviews with the subject, as well as their family and community members. Still, we covered qualitative research and interviewing skills in the course and many students ended up interviewing local lawyers or individuals involved in restorative justice initiatives in order to flesh out the available alternatives to incarceration.

Students were encouraged to explore a wide variety of research methods by looking at peer-reviewed academic publications, grey literature, reports from commissions of inquiry, and case law to find information of relevance to the Gladue analysis. In terms of precedents, I provided students with access to three redacted examples of Gladue reports from British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Ontario that included reference to secondary source research. It is worth noting that not all Gladue reports contain extensive secondary source research so I was selective about the precedents I obtained for this purpose. I wanted to ensure that the precedents were at least partially replicable in the classroom, as opposed to reports that are solely the result of interviews. I also provided the students with three examples of sentencing decisions that I felt clearly address both prongs of the Gladue analysis: R v Drysdale, 2016 SKQB 160; R v Christmas, 2017 NSPC 48; and R v Callihoo, 2017 ABPC 40.

The Gladue report project was also supported by guest lectures throughout the term. For example, Anisa White, Chairperson of the Gladue Writers Society of British Columbia, lectured the class via Skype on how Indigenous legal traditions can be incorporated within Gladue reports—a topic she has previously addressed elsewhere. Our cultural advisor, Aaju Peter, led a discussion of excerpts from Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies to get students to think critically about the research process. During Restorative Justice Week, we also had representatives of the Department of Justice come in to speak to the students about restorative justice programming in Nunavut, including the Iqaluit Justice Committee. This was a happy coincidence. And while I was unsuccessful at arranging a guest lecture from someone involved in a Gladue report process elsewhere in Inuit Nunangat, a well-timed news article helped demonstrate the reports’ potential relevance to Inuit regions and was shared for discussion. Note that unlike Nunavik, Gladue reports are rarely if ever used in Nunavut courts.

The results

This group project was assessed through a combination of the final mock Gladue reports, group presentations on their work-in-progress in advance, and reflective essays mid-way through the project. The plurality of assessments allowed me to weigh in on their progress well in advance to see how the course materials were being applied in context to the assignment. This was a research class after all.

There is a broad scope as to what types of information may qualify as relevant to a Gladue analysis. While most Gladue reports are largely focused on a community’s history, the individual’s history, and what programming is available in the community, they may also engage with social science research and information on Indigenous legal traditions, among other things. I encouraged students to prepare their reports in response to the Supreme Court of Canada’s directions in R v Gladue rather than feeling constrained by the redacted precedents I provided, which were themselves diverse in their approaches and content in any event.

The students clearly took this advice to heart. One of the reports provided a very detailed treatment of how FASD relates to sentencing and the Gladue analysis, clearly linking this to the limited programming available in Nunavut. That same report also provided a detailed community history of Iqaluit, summarized in large part from the Community Histories component of the Qikiqtani Truth Commission’s Final Report. Other students contributed sections that addressed the impacts of the child welfare system on Indigenous children, for example, or that provided specific and detailed statistical information on how systemic discrimination manifests itself in specific communities. One report provided a detailed discussion of the impacts of high arctic relocations on Inuit in Nunavut and Nunavik. This was based in part on secondary sources but also included interviews with family members of one of the students in this group who experienced a relocation firsthand. More than one of the students’ mock Gladue reports touched on Inuit legal traditions as well.

The students’ reflection papers provided other interesting insights into how the Gladue analysis might be adapted to the realities of Inuit Nunangat. Several students raised concerns with the lack of Inuit-specific research available on the intergenerational impacts of the residential school system, community dislocation, and colonization. Many were uncomfortable relying on research that made broader generalizations about Indigenous experiences while being focused on First Nations rather than Inuit experiences. This was a good example of what we learned in the course about the identification of research gaps through a literature review. One student made a persuasive argument for the need to modify the name, form, and content of Gladue reports to better reflect Inuit culture and perspectives, linking this to course readings from Cindy Blackstock and Linda Tuhiwai Smith. Another who had a background in the criminal justice system persuasively argued that emphasis on community and familial dysfunction in a Gladue report could be coded as risk factors that lead to even greater levels of overincarceration for Inuit. Needless to say, I learned as much if not more than the students through administering this project.

Reflections for the future

Overall, I think this assignment was a success. Each group was able to demonstrate research skills on a project that was open-ended and interest-driven. There is enough complexity and depth built into the Gladue analysis that each group had the freedom to approach the assignment from unique angles and perspectives. The focus of the project was on developing and practising research skills, but this was accomplished in a way that I believe to be at least partially responsive to Call to Action #28.

On the other hand, the students’ inability to extensively engage in the interviewing process was a significant limitation. All groups conducted interviews regarding community-based resources that could be put forward as alternatives to incarceration and at least one group conducted interviews for the community history component of their report. Yet the investigation-type interviews conducted by Gladue report writers were not replicable in this assignment as the scenarios were fictional. This was disappointing as the students did not have a chance to practise what they learned about interview techniques as part of this project. For example, we had discussed the importance of asking open-ended questions, and clarifying and corroborating information obtained through interviews, all of which are equally relevant to the practice of law as they are to the Gladue report process.

These limitations may be addressed by having law students directly involved in the preparation of real Gladue reports through an externship program like the one that is apparently taking place at the University of Alberta. Unfortunately, in jurisdictions like Saskatchewan and Nunavut where there is no formal process for the preparation of Gladue reports, we have little choice but to use our imaginations.

Resources

Among other resources, students were assigned the following relevant readings during this course:

  • Kelly Hannah-Moffat & Paula Marutto, “Re-contextualizing Pre-Sentence Reports: Risk and Race” (2011) 12:2 Punishment and Society
  • Cindy Blackstock, “First Nations Children Count: Enveloping Quantitative Research in an Indigenous Envelope” (2009) 4(2) First Peoples Child & Family Review 135
  • Rebecca Johnson & Lori Groft, “Learning Indigenous Law: Reflections on Working with Western Inuit Stories” (2017) 2:2 Lakehead Law Journal 117
  • Hadley Friedland & Val Napoleon, “Gathering the Threads: Developing a Methodology for Researching and Rebuilding Indigenous Legal Traditions” (2015-2016) 1:1 Lakehead Law Journal 16
  • Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonising Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (London & New York: Zed Books, 1999) [excerpts]
  • Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Nunavut Research Institute, Negotiating Research Relationships with Inuit Communities: A Guide for Researchers, Scot Nickels et al, eds (Ottawa & Iqaluit: Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Nunavut Research Institute, 2006)
  • Benjamin Ralston & Christine Goodwin “R v. Drysdale: A Gold Standard for the Implementation of R v. Gladue” (2017) 33:7 Criminal Reports 114
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“Inuktitut word of the week” board in the NLP classroom, maintained by the Nunavut Law Students Society

The Blanket Exercise – Part 1

Introduction

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A basket of blankets ready to go

In the Fall of 2017, the UVic Law Faculty decided to involve the full first year law school class in a form of the KAIROS Blanket Exercise as part of our mandatory Legal Process Course. We had been reflecting on the possibility of doing a Blanket Exercise for a number of years.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action(particularly #28, directed to Canada’s Law Schools) inspired us to start incorporating new ways of learning into our program.

In the interests of generating a conversation about embodied pedagogy and TRC work, I want to share here five different experiences that I have had with the blanket exercise (including the approach our law school took last year).

In the post Blanket Exercise – Scripts, Scrolls, Suggestions, you will find links to the copy of the script as we used it at UVIc, along with some notes on the challenges of actually doing the exercise. By that, I mean the concrete, practical questions related to the space, facilitators, training people, food, acoustics and number of blankets. Those considerations are the real, practical guts of what it took in order to run this exercise. Follow that link if you want to begin with those practical questions.

The remainder of this conversation (broken into three posts) is a series of reflections on my five encounters with the Blanket Exercise. Each encounter helped me recognize both the necessity and the challenges of doing trauma-informed, embodied pedagogy in the law school.

Just by way of provisional definition, by ‘embodied pedagogy’, I mean teaching in a way that acknowledges bodies, makes them visible, and moves them to the center of the learning experience. It is a way of teaching in which bodies are recognized as key to relationships, to understanding our histories of being, experiencing, and living in the world.

As you read about my description of each of the experiences I invite you to think about three different questions:

  1. What is the goal of the exercise? To share information? To gather information? To created a common foundation for further conversations?
  2. What advantages can embodied pedagogy bring to TRC work in the law school?
  3. Is it possible to create a safe space in which the experience can unfold, one that is trauma-informed?

By the end of this piece I hope to have articulated some of the reasons why the UVic Law School decided to involve all our students in the blanket exercises as a starting point for a common understanding of our history of Indigenous-Colonizer/Settler relationships. I hope also to have shared some insights that emerged from reflecting on multiple engagements with the exercise.

Encounter #1 – Nervous Reluctance at the Very Idea

My first encounter could perhaps be described as an encounter with an idea. That is, my first encounter was not through participation, but through description of the exercise: my colleague Maxine Matilpi had participated in a version of the KAIROS exercise, and suggested that we do it with our students at UVic. As I understood it from her description, a floor would be covered with blankets representing North America before contact. Over the course of an hour or so, people would be taken through Canadian history in a way that performed small-pox, genocide, residential school, the foster care system, dispossession and more. At the end of the exercise there would be a visual map capturing the ways in which colonial practices have resulted in fragmented communities. The exercise would be followed by a debriefing session in which participants could discuss their experience of the exercise. Maxine reported that participants had found the exercise to be a powerful way of understanding this swath of history in a more embodied fashion.

While the exercise sounded interesting, it also made me very nervous. It seemed like the exercise would raise a lot of hard questions in a context where I was not confident we in the law school (I?) would have the capacity to address them. I was worried that law students might be resistant, that it might generate backlash, and that it might produce more harm than good. But I kept my ears open. And other friends, including Hadley Friedland, stepped forward to make the suggestion again. But at each mention of the exercise, while I found myself saying that it sounded ‘conceptually interesting’, my primary affective response was one of nervous reluctance (and refusal).

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Doing the blanket exercise in Edmonton

It was several years later that Hadley Friedland did what both Maxine and she had suggested that UVic should do. That is, she used the blanket exercise at University of Alberta with a group of over 200 law students and faculty.  She adapted the Kairos script to be more attentive to the law school context.  She involved people from local Indigenous communities and from the Indigenous Bar Association to facilitate discussion groups after the exercises.  She didn’t let ‘logistics’ stop her: since there wasn’t a room large enough in their law school to physically pull this off, the exercise was run in the gymnasium at U of A.  The event successfully met its objectives. Click below for accounts of the U of A experience in 2016 and 2017:

With my nervousness about the exercise tempered by evidence of its success at the University of Alberta law school, I moved in the direction of a small scale experiement – trying it myself.

Encounter #2 –  The McGill Welcoming Week Version

The first time I myself participated in the Blanket Exercise was in Montreal during a Welcome Week at McGill. I was in town visiting my sister, and it just so happened that a group of McGill students (NOT associated with the law school), were running the exercise, in a week where there were multiple competing events.  I was, in some ways, “a stranger in a strange land”, and there was some comfort in the idea of trying the exercise out in a context where I did not know anyone, and nobody really knew me.  It was clear that time was of the essence and things were being brought together at the last minute. This is shorthand for saying, it was a very bare-bones exercise. The presentation didn’t feel glossy or polished. The people who were playing the roles of the facilitators and the settlers were volunteers. They were real people doing an exercise. There were no expectations that people had memorized or rehearsed lines, or that they were working to a professional standard. And so we were called in as participants in just the same way: there was no expectation that we had to do anything other than follow instructions.

Certainly, there was something quite powerful in having the exercise flow out in what felt like a very ordinary way.   I felt a certain democratizing impulse in it in the way that the script was there and it didn’t require someone with an exceptional speaking voice to have power.

I was also struck by the relationship between what I knew in my head, and what that knowledge felt like when it took an embodied form. During the exercise, I was given a scroll which was to be read aloud at the relevant time.   The text referenced the death of Indigenous women. There was nothing in the text that was new to me – by that I mean that the data was something that I was accustomed to teaching in my criminal law class.   Yet, having to read the words out loud in this context was very hard. It was all I could do to try to read the words without crying.   I was reminded that reading the words in my head is not the same as saying the words in ways which required my lungs to take breath, my vocal chords to do the work of speaking the sentence in time. It takes much longer to say the words out loud, than it does for my eyes to take in the meaning. Having to say it out loud is not the same as knowing it. Or as hearing it. I was reminded that the speaking of words makes them real, ‘in the body.’

I was also reminded that I have a great deal of personal discomfort with role-playing exercises. I am perfectly happy watching others do them, but I don’t have a strong desire to be a participant. Indeed, knowing that I might have to participate in something will often send me quite a few rows back in a classroom. I am much more comfortable in my head than in my body. I prefer talking about things to doing things. I am always aware of discomfort in my body when I am asked to perform in many of these contexts. I experienced some of this in doing the exercise, but in ways that involve productive discomfort.

As one example, the exercise opened with the instruction that we walk around on the blankets saying hello, greeting each other.   That activity, itself, often takes me out of my comfort zone. I don’t enjoy parts of classes where we are supposed to walk around and introduce ourselves. For one thing, I am often uncomfortable shaking people’s hands: with how hard to shake, how soft to shake, are their hands arthritic, do I need to be careful how hard I squeeze, are my hand clammy or sweaty, will they want to shake my hand, will it be gross for them to shake my hand, is my hand too rough, how long should I smile, should I get eye-contact. These kinds of questions are running through my head in those exercises, thinking about my own comfort and also about the community of others of my loved ones who really hate these kinds of exercises.

There is something staged and false about that intro that I can feel in my body in a particular way, so I don’t really enjoy it. As someone who does not come from and has not embodied the Catholic tradition, I have also felt that way at the end of the Catholic mass where people turn to each other and say, peace be with you. Every time I am in one of those moments, I find myself thinking of my mother-in-law, who told me that she found that the most powerful part of the whole mass. For her, those moments of connection were powerful.

And so while I find them uncomfortable, I appreciate that they may be operating differently for others. The point is just that the exercise pushed me immediately into a space in which my body’s own discomfort was mobilized. In taking that first step and literally stepping onto the blankets, I was trying not to let my nervous giggle surface, walking around, shaking hands with people I did not know, wondering if I was operating appropriately or not. For me, this discomfort was productive – my participation was largely an information-gathering exercise to inform whether I could bring back and use this exercise in the places where I worked and lived. So that was good for me to know and helped temper the discomfort.

I found myself wondering if the exercise would have been different with trained actors reading the main roles.   I also wondered if that would lead me to feel more engaged, or to experience greater distance. It certainly let me think about the real pragmatic questions about how much of the work is in the script of the exercise itself and how much is in the power-of-performance dimensions of the script. There was a debrief following the exercise. I did find that the conversation after the exercise was as at least as interesting as the exercise itself.

I came away from this first exercise with some valuable insights and with a curiosity and desire to participate a second time.

Click to continue to Blanket Exercise – Part 2

Indigenous Ways of Being and Knowing (A Try): An Exercise in Family Law and Sex-O at UVicLaw

(The featured image entitled “Sen” is the work of Uumati Kisoun-Inuarak, more of her work can be found at http://www.uumati.com)

 

This post contains an exercise that I designed for my Family Law class at UVicLaw (Law 322) in the Fall of 2016 and then revised for my Sexual Orientation and the Law seminar (Sex-O) in the Fall of 2017.  My goal with both classes was to respond to Call to Action 28 by raising as central to our study — both of families and of sexual identity — issues of colonialism.  And, my goal was to do it at the outset of the course so those issues would serve as a lens through which we approached all questions throughout the term.

My hope here is to share what I did in those classes (the try that it was) so that anyone could pick it up, adapt it slightly, and use in their own course.  So, I will outline in a “how to” kind of way, what I did in both classes.  And then at the end I will reflect a bit on how it worked.

I.  Family Law.

Family Law at UVic is an upper level elective course with a cap of 50 students, taught twice a week for 90 minutes.  It is taught with two volumes of materials, the first addressing family formation and the second addressing family breakdown.  Given the complicated ways that law impacts our understanding of “the family” the first part of the course is evaluated by essay with the subject chosen by the students.  This enables me some pedagogical freedom.  The second part of the course addresses the more conventional issues of divorce, custody, division of property and support, and is evaluated by take-home examination.

There is not a single issue that we address in family law that will not in some way or shape impact someone in the class.  This is something we address explicitly at the outset of class; we know what “the family” is in family law because we have lived them.  The need to recognize that in class participation is critical, and wherever there is a more embodied class, like this one, I ensure, as best I can, that students know the content we will be covering.

The role that colonialism plays in family law in BC has always been central to the course, particularly on questions of family formation, but in Fall of 2016, I decided additionally to address the TRC’s calls to action with a standalone class.

In a semester of 25 classes, this was the third class coming after a introductory class, and a class that set out histories, definitions and legal change, and before dealing with constitutional frameworks Reading Outline Law 322 2016.

The question posed to the class in advance of class was “how does the legacy of residential schools inform our understanding of the family and family law in 21st century Canada” and the reading for the class was the Introduction to Honouring the Truth Reconciling for the Future, Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (pages 1-21) Executive Summary TRC1 and then excerpts from The Survivors Speak, A Report of the Truth and Reconciliation of Canada (pages 1-22, 31-46, 99-108, 201-203) The Survivors Speak TRC2.

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The students were also asked to come to class with an example of when they had seen the story of residential schools in popular media for sharing with their classmates; and with a reminder of the nature and difficulty of the subject matter we will address.

At the outset of class the students had an outline to show the four components of the class: introduction to TRC28, sharing their popular culture moments, Briefing a Story, and then discussion of the TRC and its connecting significance to the course as whole (TRC class outline).

Introduction. As the class was settling I had set up my child’s turntable, and was playing  a vinyl version of Gord Downey’s The Secret Path.  I begin by very briefly addressing TRC28 and then move to discuss the history of residential schools as the explicit policy of the Canadian government to eliminate Indigenous governments and legal traditions in Canada through assimilation.  And specifically, how at the heart of this cultural genocide was the need to disrupt the family, the unit recognized y then governments as the primary vehicle through which Indigenous laws and values were shared and learned.

Popular culture.  I then divided the class up into groups of four or five, giving them a few minutes to share with each other how residential school issues have been made visible to them in popular or other media.  After some time I then charted them up on to the board and later provided the list as a handout with some space for discussion about where, when and how these issues should be taught Shared residential school resources 20-09-16.

Briefing a story. In their same groups I then introduced a case briefing exercise drawing on the methodology developed by Drs Val Napoleon and Hadley Friedland and employed at the heart of the work of UVic’s Indigenous Law Research Unit (ILRU).  This part of the work may seem daunting, but here is where I really encourage colleagues to give this work a try.  If you can do a workshop with ILRU that would be ideal.  But if not there is detailed information about the history, ethic and structure of the methodology in ILRU publications like their Gender Inside Indigenous Law Toolkit or in scholarly writing like Hadley and Val’s article, Gathering the Threads.

Since its origins, the people of ILRU, Val, Hadley, a cohort of students, researchers and others, began to look for Indigenous law sources and resources in the myriad places they have been recorded.  And drawing on the work of Dr John Borrows and others, ILRU began to retells stories and cases, using an adaptation of the common law “case-method” to identify legal principles within single stories, to address the resurgence and revitalization of Indigenous laws.

So, in each group I gave them a publicly-accessible story that has formed part of ILRU’s work.  One of the students in each group read the story aloud, and then the students set out to use the framework, shared by ILRU, to prepare a “brief” of the story.  To move through stereotypes and assumptions, to see Indigenous laws in the present tense, and to see legal concepts and categories, legal principles, legal processes for decision-making and problem-solving.

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 6.30.58 PM

(Art by Dr. Val Napoleon)

Case brief:     Name of story with full citations

Issue/Problem: What is the main human problem we are looking at within this story?  What is it that the story is trying to tell us?  It may be more effective to frame this as a question that one can then answer through the analysis.

Facts:  What facts in the story matter to this particular issue?

Decision/Resolution:  What is decided that resolves the problem?  If there is no clear human decision, what action resolves the problem?

Reason (Ground/Ratio): What is the reason behind the decision or resolution?  Is there an explanation in the story?  If not, what can be inferred as the unstated reason?  What is the “why” behind the decision or response?

Bracket:  What do you need to bracket for yourself in this story?  Some things may be beyond your current frame of reference but are not necessary for the case analysis.  Conversations will inevitably flow from what is bracketed

The stories I gave my class that year were all stories about children being removed from or returned to communities.  The ones I used are here: Buffalo ChildThe Girl Raised by a Grizzly BearThe Caterpillar; and The Boy who was Raised by Wolves.

Time was of course an issue, and was best spent by giving them lots of time to struggle with pulling the principles out of the stories, making sense of them, and seeing the connection to our work in the course.  I used my time moving from group to group, posing questions and working to keep them on track.

Truth and Reconciliation. I concluded class by offering some space for reflections from their briefings, and then by returning to the broader work of the TRC, and our work in family law.

II.  Sex-O

Sexual Orientation and the Law (Law 357, lovingly called Sex-O by the students) is an upper year seminar, theoretically taught every other year.  The class is twice a week for 90 minutes, and the methodology is one that draws heavily on embodied pedagogy.  The first class of the week is a discussion class, readings based, and the second class puts those readings into action.

In my 2017 seminar, I chose to import the lesson plan that I had used in family law with slight modification.  This class on Indigenous stories was the third of three classes at the outset of the course aimed at locating ourselves in place, space and law and to recognize the connections between Indigenous laws and colonial constructions of gender.  The first week of the course including an adaptation of Pulling the Weeds – by Suzanne Lenon, Kara Granzow & Emily Kirbyson shared on this blog, and the second week included a discussion of colonialism, Indigeneity and queer legal theory, to set up the TRC exercise.

So, similar to family law, this exercise sat right at the outset of the course so that students would be thinking about and drawing on these materials through their work Reading outline Sex-O 2017.

The reading for the week including the following: SexO readings 12-09-17 and so the students were asked to come to class with familiarity of the ILRU methodology.

Introduction. I did a similar introduction as I had in family law, but with the focus on the role that colonialism plays in our understanding of sexuality, or as authors Drs Sarah Hunt and Cindy Holmes articulate “further our reflections on decolonizing a queer praxis.”  This was supplemented by the students having already spent a whole class engaging with the theoretical materials.

We then watched one of ILRU’s videos — Indigenous Law Gender and Sexuality to set up our conversation about how gendered power dynamics shape legal interpretations, and in particular how Indigenous ways of knowing and being are engaged in our collective effort in queering law.

Briefing a case. I then, similarly, broke them into groups of 3 or 4 (smaller groups due to the smaller seminar size), set up the ILRU exercise, and then gave them each a story that I chose from the Gender Inside Indigenous Law Casebook.  The stories I chose were: Hu’pken (Secwepemc); Sn’naz (Secwepemc); Hairy-Heart People (Cree); Swan and Some (Dane-zaa) and Dog Peed on Arrow (Dane-zaa).

They then similarly worked with the ILRU case brief (as shown above) with the additional questions drawn from the work of Dr Emily Snyder:

Questions about legal processes: What are the characteristics of legitimate decision-making processes? Who is included? Is this gendered? Who are the authoritative decision makers?

Legal responses and resolutions: What are the responses? Do these responses have different implications for women and men?

Legal rights: What should people and other beings be able to expect from others? Are any of these expectations gendered? Are certain rights overlooked?

General gender dynamics: Are both women and men present in the material? What are they doing or saying? In what contexts do women and men appear?

Conclusions. Again, time was not our friend, but after considerable engagement, we came back to the large group to see what they had pulled out of the stories, and how the primarily gendered issues translated into questions of sexuality.  We then stepped back to the work of the TRC as a whole, and concluded by thinking through, collectively, how knowing and continuing to engage with the TRC, particularly the history and legacy of residential schools, matters to our study of sexual orientation and the law.

III.  Self-reflection

I think to really know how these classes worked, you have to ask the students.  I hope that some of them will take up the comment features from this blog and let you all know. From my perspective as an educator, they worked really well.  First, issues of Indigenous ways of knowing and being grounded both of those courses from the outset.  And that really seemed to matter; visible in classroom discussion and in their essays and projects.  Second, engaging with Indigenous stories is something that our students do in various places at UVicLaw.  And there the work often does double-duty, demonstrating the significance to Canadian law of the resurgence and revitalization of Indigenous legal orders, on the one hand, and showing how all law is stories, on the other.  Third, the embodied nature of the exercise — the reading aloud, the sketching out a case brief on flip chart paper, the vulnerability of it — seems to affect a power shift in the class.  Right from the outset these students are talking to each other about things that really matter, and doing that with respect, creativity and openness.  Modelling dynamic learning can free students to try different evaluative methods themselves.

Finally, as a non-Indigenous instructor, doing this work can be terrifying at times.  The intergenerational trauma that some of our students live with, and the gravity of bringing issues of cultural genocide into law school teaching, is huge.  But my parting words would be that it so important to try.  To self-educate, definitely, but to not shy away from exercises, like this one, that with a little bit of set-up can wreak huge benefits.

I have tried to include all of my materials here, but super happy to talk more about this with anyone who wants to give this a go, too.

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Core Strengthening – A MOOC to get you going!

Part of TRC Calls to Action  #27 and #28 includes training in “intercultural competency”.   I find myself reflecting on the very real challenge for many of us working in law:  how do we as professors strengthen the grounds of our own intercultural competency?   Part of what we are engaged in is a new practice of balancing.  What resources are available to both students and faculty alike?

There are some very interesting resources out there and available in the world.  Just as one example, here at UVic, our colleagues Robina Thomas and Rob Hancock at the office of Indigenous Academic and Community Engagement have developed a Cultural Acumen Training, program, and have been providing the first module (an 80 minute ‘foundations’ session) to Faculty, to staff, and in classrooms.   It is a delight (and a politically meaningful one) to see institutional support for the kind of learning/unlearning that has to be done as we move forward on this work.  One of the ways I think all of us can contribute to the work is to support and make use of the resources available in our particular institutions (conscious of course of the thoughtful cautions of Jula Hughes re the colonization of cultural competency work).IMG_20171122_112632

I also want to do a big shout out to University of Alberta, and their Indigenous Canada MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) [taught by Professors Tracy Bear and Paul Gareau].  It is a wonderful response to the TRC, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

If I were to suggest a gift for the holidays, it would be to give yourself the gift of signing up for this course.  OK.  The thing is, this gift is FREE!  But you can also pay for it.  I think it was something like $65 if you want to take it for the Certificate.  I took the PAYMENT option, partly as a way of trying to keep myself accountable (and so i would have a small amount of pressure, so i would TAKE the time needed each week to actually DO the work).

The Course is super well designed, and has 12 lessons/weeks.   The site tells you to anticipate a time commitment of 3-5 hours a work per week.  I will say it took me less time… maybe because i am just so smart already?!  🙂  That said, i have subsequently returned to and re-watched several components (sometimes with my kids), so there you go on the time front.

Here some truly delicious things about the course:

  1. It is in manageable time chunks!  The course is online (I guess that is why one of the “O”s in “MOOC” is for “online?”)  It has been designed so you can work around a fragmented schedule (if your life works as does mine).  It is broken down into small video components (each between 10 and 20 minutes long at the most).  The videos have little quizzes built into them (so you can answer questions right at the spot that you are getting access to new information).  I totally enjoyed watching a segment or two in the evening, sometimes while eating dinner. IMG_20171122_152153
  2. There is art!  In the design of the course, they worked with artist Leah Dorion, to have her produce original art work for the course.  For each week in the course, there is “Interactive Painting” segment where the artist walks you through one of the paintings, discussing the elements in the painting, and how they relate to the subject.   Various elements from the paintings are then incorporated (as visual markers) into the weekly lessons in ways that really help to anchor and extend the content.
  3. There is significant breadth in coverage.  Topics for the 12 lessons include the fur trade and other exchange relationships, land claims and environmental impacts, Indigenous women, legal systems and rights, political conflicts and alliances, Indigenous political activism,urban Indigenous governance practices, contemporary Indigenous life, art and its expressions and more.  There is also a great 49 page “Native Studies Glossary” with links to internet resources.
  4. The production values make it a pleasure to watch.   We academics are smart, but not always fun to watch when filmed.  They did a really good job on the design, and so I found the mix of talking heads, images, animations, and text to really hold my attention.   It is designed in a way to touch various learning styles.  In short, the videos not only held my attention, but gave me lots to think about in terms of pedagogies!  I am also in love with the intro music for the course (and often found myself humming along).

In short, there are great resources out there to support us as we do the work of extending our own intercultural acumen, of familiarizing ourselves with the history that is our own.  This is a resource that I would feel comfortable recommending to students and colleagues alike.  Certainly worth thinking about as a concrete action each of us can take in the direction of taking up our own personal obligations under the TRC to educate ourselves for the work ahead.

 

 

 

WHAT’S ‘YOUR’ TREATY?

WHAT’S ‘YOUR’ TREATY? – A Call#28 In-class Exercise (with thanks to Michael Asch and Alan Hanna)

In the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, Canadians are told of the importance of Treaties, both about teaching them, and knowing them. Many of us in Law Schools are focused on Call #28.

28.  We Call upon law schools in Canada to require all law students to take a course in Aboriginal people and the law, which includes the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal-Crown relations. This will require skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.

On-Being-Here-to-Stay-Treaties-and-Aboriginal-Rights-in-CanadaThis is fine in the abstract, but, as with many things, the devil is in the details. My experience is that relatively few law students already know what treaty governs them. Indeed, many law professors are in the same situation.

Certainly, I found myself squarely in the camp of the non-knowledgeable earlier this year while sitting in on Val Napoleon’s Indigenous Legal Theory Class. Alan Hanna (a lawyer with Woodward and Company, a law firm that works exclusively for First Nations organizations and governments) came to give a guest lecture. He began by suggesting a round of introductions. He asked us to each tell him our name, and what treaty territory we were born in. As Alan told us, this is a question that anthropologist Michael Asch has been asking his students for years.

ACK!

Because I work at a University that attempts to acknowledge the territory as part of its protocols, I knew that I was living on unceded Lekwungen, WSÁNEĆ and Coast Salish Territory. But that was not the question posed. I did NOT know which treaty applied in the place where I was born (Calgary). My first impulse was to blame my mother for that appalling gap in my knowledge base (I mean, why take responsibility when you can displace it?!). However, I was also pretty sure that I recalled my mom talking to me about treaties when she was taking University courses in her 60s. I just had not remembered or retained that information. I wasn’t sure which was worse: knowing that I did not know the answer, or seeing so clearly that I was not alone. Several of us in the class experienced challenges in providing an answer.

treaty6map
Map from https://canadianhistoryworkshop.wordpress.com/treaties/treaty-six/

Alan/Michael’s question was super-useful in terms of making visible that there are concrete things individual people can do to begin the process of reconciliation. Thus. Note to self: one step in the direction of reconciliation is to “know the name of the treaty that applies in the territory in which you were BORN, as well as in the territory in which you currently LIVE.” And so, inspired (aka ‘tail firmly between my legs’), I scuttled off to the internet, to find and then read about Treaty 7 (for you Calgarians out there!)

 

A second step in the direction of reconciliation might be “figure out how to work TREATIES into one of the classes you teach this year, no matter what subject you teach”.    What follows, then, is a walk-through of an excercise using “The Treaty Question” in a classroom of 40ish students. This is how Alan and I (who went on to co-teach a course on Indigenous Research Methods and Practice this summer) set it up, in order to get at the benefits of the question with a smaller risk of embarrassment to people who don’t know the answer.

THE EXERCISE

On the first day of class, we ended things with the following assignment. We asked the students to take a few minutes in the evening, and go online to find out what treaty governed the place they were from. In setting up the exercise, I told them how I had been asked this question in a workshop and had been unable to answer it (argh… it is TRUE!!! And it was somewhat humiliating). My thought was that it was better to acknowledge to the students that many of us are in the same rickety boat, so that people could throw themselves into a new exercise without fear or embarrassment about a knowledge gap. This is the thing about growing up in a colonial context. There are many knowledge gaps.

We left the students with some freedom on the ‘from’ part of the question. It could mean where they were born, or where they grew up, or where they were currently living. They were told they would report back to the group the following day, and would be required to tell us three things:

  1. What treaty applies in the place you are from (born in, grew up in, living in now)?
  2. What is something you found interesting or unexpected while doing the research for this assignment?
  3. What is your favourite dessert?

THE RATIONALE

Because this was the beginning of the term, not all of the students knew the others. So at one level, this assignment functioned a bit like an ‘icebreaker’. But is also functioned in a number of other ways:

  1. Substantively, this is a great way to get conversation going about Treaties. For many students, it is likely to be the first time they have been asked the question, have been able to provide an answer to the question, or looked at the text of a treaty. Because the students will likely be from a number of different places, it also means that you will have real variety. For example, in our class, we had a student visiting from Europe, who said that there was no treaty governing her. That was a great answer, as it enabled a good discussion about (for example) The Treaty of Westphalia. If that happens, it opens up space for talking about how Treaties in North America are or are not like other kinds of treaties. (Also, depending on the class you were teaching, it could enable a discussion of failures to keep the terms of a treaty, ie. Can one person get out of it unilaterally? Does a breach of a term necessarily invalidate the treaty itself?).
  1. It enabled the students to go do a bit of research on their own right at the beginning of the class (rather than just being given a map of treaties, or being told what treaty governed), in order to answer a question that was “theirs” (ie. It would differ depending on where they were from). Since they were left to do it on their own, it enabled them to develop their own search strategy, and to see something of what is out there in the world (for both the good and the bad). It also meant that they would have a chance to see, talk about and compare some of the different resources out there.
  1. The students were asked to share what they had learned with their classmates. The point of this was not simply that they acquire knowledge, but that they share it. Each student had a few minutes to ‘teach’ their classmates something substantive (which treaties apply where) and also to practice their own talking/oral/aural skills (in a very low-stakes context). This disrupted the conventional model of the professor as teacher, since the students were active participants in knowledge transmission.   It is also ‘collaborative’ in some important ways (collaborating as a class to come up with our own mapping of treaties), and this too supports the skill-development set out in Call #28.
  1. This approach provided space to develop community in a way that a typical icebreaker wouldn’t. The students tended to share in a different way: they were sharing their research process, along with something of what was surprising or unexpected to them. It meant that we spent a very interesting hour, listening to people give gently personalized accounts about search strategies and their responses to learning about the treaty that was ‘theirs’. We were still telling each other something of where we were ‘from’, but in a way different from the way we usually do it: we were each asked to describe ourselves as governed by a particular treaty. It made space for the students to begin the work of making community with each other. While any form of introduction might work for this, doing it in this way disrupted the more common pattern of replying on disciplinary background or degrees or urban/rural (which can be alienating for some students).

SOME TEACHING/PEDAGOGICAL COMMENTS

  • USING A CIRCLE: When we did this exercise in class, we used the ‘circle methodology’: that is, we broke up the classroom space, rearranging things so that we were sitting in a circle facing each other. There were two of us facilitating the class, so the circle began with one of us and closed with the other [a great technique for circles if you are fortunate enough to have two people facilitating/teaching the class]. Some thoughts on using a circle. If you can do it from time to time, awesome. Clearly, this is more or less of a challenge (and indeed, more or less possible) depending on the structure of the room in which you teach. There are some great advantages to using the circle method for some exercises. Most powerfully, it really lets people speak to each other. In some ways, this is because you can’t really take notes or work with laptops: there is no place to hide! Indeed, you get the advantage of a laptop-free space without having to fight for it. There is something powerful where people are talking to each other and can see each other at the same time. While I think the exercise can work in whatever space you have, it is worth thinking about disruptions to conventional classroom space for this exercise. There is something about the change in space that can also support a change in how the students both share and hear information that is being discussed.   It gives people a chance to really practice their listening skills, and leans more in the direction of the skills list set out in the TRC Call #28.
  • MULTIPLE ITERATIONS: I think this is an exercise that could be done multiple times, and in multiple classroom contexts.   Even if the class participant (student or prof) ‘knew’ the answer already, it would leave space for people to re-read, learn something new, share something new, reinforce what they already knew, make new connections.   Depending on the class you are teaching, students can be asked to engage with the treaties in more or less complex ways (for example, in  Family Law, International Law, Conflicts of Law). There is something to be said, however, for beginning where you are: to taking seriously the notion that knowledge can be acquired in layers, and that people can return to the same question multiple times. There is value in doing so in ways that enable people to connect the TRC questions to their own person experience. This lets people do learning in ways that connect them to their own experience of place. It can enable people to connect to land, while opening space for conversations about the obligations one has within a treaty, and about how one learns about treaty obligations moving into a new space.
  • saltyCaramelsSlipping
    My favourite dessert?  Chocolates hand-dipped by a sibling, of course!

    “DESSERT”: We were not just being flippant in asking the students to share their favourite dessert after telling us what they had learned about the treaty that governs the place they are from. We were asking students to do an exercise that can be uncomfortable/challenging for a number of communities for a number of reasons. It may be challenging for indigenous students who may be thinking about broken promises, connections to land, etc. It may also involve some discomfort for some settler students who are similarly asked to consider what it means to be living in unceded land, etc. By heading to a dessert at the end, students were also given space to bond over treats (you can expect to see people nodding in agreement, or occasionally salivating). The moment of lightness at the end helps with the other moments that are more difficult. It also adds another line of connections, is a reminder of food, and other things that people have in common.

FINAL REFLECTIONS

While we were using this exercise in the context of Indigenous Legal Methodology, I don’t think the utility of this exercise is limited to classes the directly engage questions of Indigenous Law, Land or Pedagogy. This exercise is a pretty good one for basic ‘getting to know you’ purposes in the context of any class (or indeed, any non-class context involving introductions). At least within the law school, we are constantly asking students to tell us where they are from, what degree they have, etc. Often, those demands are just to help us get to know each other. Starting from the point of view of ‘treaty’ is one way to do the same thing, while participating in acts of reconciliation by attempting to place treaty as the ground on which we all stand.

But there is much more to be said about this exercise.  Indeed, to introduce oneself by situating the legal order from which one comes is also a performance of law in many Indigenous legal orders. For example, this was articulated as a legal obligation in current work being done by ILRU in conjunction with the Secwepemc (Shuswap Nation Tribal Council) on Land and Resource Law. Beginning with an acknowledgment of the the territory you are in, and of the territory you come from is a way of acknowledging the existence of obligations and responsibilities attaching to both land and people who have taken on relationships to it and to each other.

In the act of introducing oneself to others through Treaty, then, one can make visible the legal obligations that one carries as a result both of territory of birth, and territory in which one finds oneself (and this is true even where one is not conscious of the obligations that they carry). Knowing the treaties makes it possible to acknowledge that one is a guest in another territory. In a perfect world, it also makes visible to non-indigenous Canadians the notion that they too (or, in my own case, I TOO) have treaty obligations. The big work is how we, as Settler Canadians, actualize or engage with those obligations, as we begin to re-consider the questions of what it means to be on treaty lands (and particularly what it means in contexts where treaty obligations have not been fulfilled).

OTHER RESOURCES TO DRAW ON:5564

  1. The TRC Final Report (Volume 1: Executive Summary) pp. 237 to 254. That section addresses:
    • UNDRIP as framework for reconciliation
      • Calls #43 and #44
    • The Doctrine of Discovery & Treaties
      • Calls #45 and #46
    • It also includes info re this link on treaties and Manitoba. Nice resource! http://www.trcm.ca/treaties/
  1. Michael Asch, On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2014).  For a helpful review of the book by Neil Vallance, see this link:
  2. Aimée Craft, Breathing Life into the Stone Fort Treaty: An Anishnabe Understanding of Treaty One (Purich Publishing, 2013).  For a short CBC report on the book, click here.

Going Home Star

going home star

 

I saw the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Going Home Star on Saturday night in Victoria.  (Read a review here: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/rwb-s-going-home-star-truth-and-reconciliation-is-inspired-and-inspiring-1.2785096).  It is an extraordinary piece of art and emotion, a choreographed telling of the legacy of residential schools in Canada, danced by by Canada’s pre-eminent ballet company.

As with most moments of art and law, I left the Royal Theatre with my heart and brain on fire, and wishing that we had had the opportunity to teach this performance in the law school classroom.  Or, alternatively, to have transformed the theatre into a place of learning for all our students. Thinking about this performance as a jurisprudential text brings many of the conversations we have been having about TRC Calls to Action 27, 28 and 50 to mind.  Some thoughts.

First, it reminds me of some of the dangers and concerns of creating mandatory course offerings.  I bought the tickets as a gift for someone close to me, someone who ultimately couldn’t come.  As a settler, I can often lose sight of the embodiment of colonialism, no matter how much I try to keep that present.  My friend carries the imprints of intergenerational trauma on her body.  And while lots of people around us commented on how much she would have loved the performance, her inability to be there wasn’t at all about whether she would have appreciated the art or not.  Even in the face of extraordinary beauty, the vestiges of colonialism can cause unthinkable pain.

Second, it reminds me that experiential education matters.  The performance itself, the ballet, the stage, the costuming, the dancing, was exquisite.  But the experience was also the drummers and their humour, the words of the Artistic Director and the audience response to the acknowledgement of the territories, the words of Grand Chief Cook about his own experience as a residential school survivor reading words from his grand-daugher’s IPad, the recognition of the survivors in the room and of the community that had paid for those tickets, the reminder that if we needed to stand up and leave the performance at any moment, content or otherwise, not only was that fine, but that there would be people to talk to.  It was feeling the Royal Theatre on its feet at the end.  The ballet was beautiful, but the layers of bark and sap and sinew that surrounded it made it living.

Third, there were elements in the performance, like points of law in a legal decision, that were jarring.  It was a constant sensory onslaught of mind, body and spirit.  The music, the throat singing and the spoken word offered affect to the story being told through movement.  The set and the use of the visual was engaging and provocative.  It made me care for the actors in the story, protagonists and villains, but it also made me worry about the context and the hurdles and obstacles presented there.  And I left thinking about representation, about synchronicity, about who keeps stories and who tells them.  I would love to think that when I teach a class I can do all of those things for my students who I know to be a mix of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners.

I know this ballet is near the end of its run.  I hope that others fortunate as I was to see it, will write about it, and what it offers those of us working to create a #ReconciliationSyllabus and more resources for an adequate response to the TRC in Canadian law schools.  I am very grateful and inspired to try to do more within our classrooms, wherever they may be, on this and the other pressing issues of our time.