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


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.


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.