#StandForTruth, or,What is the place of Indigenous Laws in Truth and Reconciliation? (a bit of a rant)

Supreme Court of Canada
The Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa is shown on Tuesday, April 14, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

In the middle of the last gasps of marking law school final exams, I find myself mentally (and, frankly, emotionally) caught up in discussions about the upcoming Fontaine case at the Supreme Court of Canada.  So… I thought I might as well get my stresses and anxieties articulated.

As I best understand it, the Fontaine case concerns what to do with the 38,000 (highly personal and confidential) records (plus another million supporting documents) that were collected or created during the Independent Assessment Processs set up as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Act (IRSSA). (The Settlement gave us both the IAP and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission).

At the time survivors gave their testimony in the IAP, it was not made clear to survivors what would happen to the records.  Now there is significant contestation: should the records be kept by Archives Canada?  By the NCTR (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation)? Should they be destroyed?  Should individual former students have a say in the matter?

The resolution was to give individual former students a 15 year window to come forward if they wanted their documents archived with the NCTR.  At the end of that period, all remaining documents are to be destroyed.  The SCC will hear the case on May 25, 2017.

The Coalition to Preserve Truth has been granted Intervenor status in the case (artist Carey Newman, and lawyer Nicole Bresser have been driving forces behind the coalition).  The Coalition is described thus:

We are the Coalition for the Preservation of Truth whose members are representatives of both residential school survivors and intergenerational residential school survivors.  The coalition is formed to advocate for the preservation of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement – Individual Assessment Program’s documents. 
The Coalition recognizes the ongoing impacts of intergenerational trauma and as such, we acknowledge that future generations have a right to know the content of these documents.  The Coalition wishes to preserve these documents while honouring individuals’ rights to privacy.

I personally support the Coalition for Truth.

What has been tricky for me is trying to describe what this support means.  So, I thought it would be useful to try to articulate (at least for myself) what it means for a non-Indigenous Canadian law professor to #StandForTruth in case like this.  This is particularly so when I know that Indigenous colleagues and friends are significantly torn over the case, and may be lining up on both sides (for retention and for destruction. (You can see the Affidavit of Carey Newman here Affidavit #1 of Carey Newman, or view the Coalition’s funding campaign on the gofundme here).

In this case, at the heart of things, my support of the intervention of the Coalition to Preserve Truth is linked to their attempt to change the story that is being told about this case.  Canadian law sees this as a story of privacy and confidentiality.  It that the story that best describes the situation here?   A story about the need to honour individual choice?  A story about the protection of individual interests in privacy and confidentiality?

Those are, of course, important values, ones that have often been denied to Indigenous people in Canada (and certainly denied in the context of residential schools).  And yet….The Coalition to Preserve Truth raises important questions about people in relation, and relationships to both the past and the future, particularly in the context of times of trauma and injury.   Should the records related to residential school survivors be kept or destroyed?  What are the relationships of the individual to the collective?  To the past?  To the future?  The Coalition’s intervention, with its focus on intergenerational connections, invites us to understand that the case should not be decided in the absence of Indigenous Laws.

To put it bluntly, Canada has a long history of making decisions about Indigenous, Metis and Inuit peoples rather than with Indigenous, Metis and Inuit peoples.  Will this case be similar?

That is, what matters here is not only the ‘outcome’ [destroy or keep the records], but also the ‘process’.  It matters that there is space for Indigenous Laws to be enacted here.  Or maybe flipped, it is very problematic that there has NOT been space for Indigenous Laws (and by that, I am including substance, process, protocol, ceremony and more) to be applied here.

I think that is why the intergenerational point the Coalition is making is so important.  It is a question of Law.  During the Independent Assessment Process, former residential school survivors shared stories of the ways that they had suffered harm that was both individual and collective.   We already know that those stories we gathered and collected in ‘non-optimal’ ways.  That is, they were not gathered in ways that would have better followed the laws (both substantive and procedural) governing the people whose stories were shared (be that Salish, Cree, Migmaw, Inuit, Metis, etc).  They also were not gathered in ways that followed Canadian law (ie. by having explicit consent forms providing choice to witnesses).

And so we are now in a position where the Canadian legal system is positioned to decide how to best deal with yet another harm experienced by both the people who shared their stories, and by the families and legal orders to which those people belong. And it will decide it in the legal lingua franca of ‘jurisdiction, privacy, and access to information’.

As the case is set out, the solution is one which is flawed in so many ways.  I get why people feel sick at the notion that, in the context of this history of genocide, the records that were created (the testimony that was witnessed) would be destroyed.  I also get why other people feel sick at the notion that their words and memories will be permanently kept by the very government that made possible the very harms they suffered.  The choice — Keep or Destroy — is a false and cruel one.  (i.e., would you prefer I cut off your right arm or your left arm?)  Framed in this way, the choice is one that (like the residential schools themselves) splits generations from each other, as people are required to consider which two untenable options will do less harm in the future.

And I acknowledge the (settler) desire I feel to keep quiet, rather than risk choosing ‘the wrong side’ in this struggle, or interfere in something that is not ‘my business’.  But the history of residential schools IS my business.  It is all our our business.  And I can’t help but think that it is not OK for settlers to stand on the side in silence, as if we can best support and respect indigenous peoples by letting them fight it out (in the corner Canadian law and history has forced them into).

There is no easy solution here.  But it is problematic to proceed as if Indigenous Laws are irrelevant, as if Indigenous Legal Orders do not have resources, as if Indigenous Communities are not deeply invested in how the memories of their peoples are held and kept and treated.   It is also problematic to proceed as if survivor voices don’t matter (in either direction… destroying the voices of those no longer able to give consent, or denying the express wishes of some for destruction of their testimony, or denying that the entire process as created conditions of unsafety and new trauma for people)

It matters not just WHAT the Court does here.  It matters also HOW the Court does it.

Indigenous peoples, in different communities, have resources for such moments, resources that are rich, and textured, and full of space to hold differences of opinion.

How do ‘we’ (people in the legal community) take up our TRC reconciliation obligations under Calls to Action #27, #28, and #50 to teach Indigenous Laws?  How might we think about our obligations to Indigenous Peoples, and that includes obligations to take into account their own laws and own ways of resolving conflicts like these?

How does Canada enact its own obligations to deal respectfully, its own obligations to acknowledge the harm it has done, its own obligations to learn more about how it too needs to act in ways that respect its connections to the past and the future.  Can the Supreme Court, at this moment, see the obligations that govern it? Obligations that may involve principles not only of Canadian law, but also of Indigenous Laws?

What I find powerful about the The Coalition for the Preservation of Truth, with its reminders about intergenerational connections, is its invitation for us to take law seriously.  It invites us to understand that we (indigenous and settler people) are both a part of this story.  It invites us to take seriously how we think about shared memory, and a shared past.  It invites us to ask what it might mean to ACTUALLY honour the testimony of those who spoke their truth at the IAP hearings.  Preserving Truth invites us to change the story we are telling about this case.

It invites us to imagine that it may be possible to simply stop for a moment.  What ever happens in the Court room, is it possible for the rest of us to make space for the questions to be reframed? It is possible to acknowledge that Indigenous law must be part of the decision-making?  What might the case look like were the courtroom to be populated with Indigenous peoples bringing principles of Indigenous law to bear in order to find solutions that truly honour the spirit of reconciliation?  What might the case look like if our law schools were populated with Indigenous colleagues doing the work of Indigenous (and non-indigenous) law? (see Zoe Todd’s latest blog)

Of course, it is hard to talk about this without getting personal (or being personal?)  Easy to blame the system.  I am left wondering really about what it might mean for me (in my own classroom, in my own home, in my own interactions with others, in this blogpost?!) to begin to to talk about the ways that I too, living in unceded Coast Salish territories, might have legal obligations to learn the laws of this place, and to make good on my own legal obligations to the past and the future (and indeed to the present).  What might it mean, anyways, for me to “Stand For Truth”, or “Stand In Truth” or “Stand With Truth”?

OK.  Rant over for now.   My hands up to my many Indigenous, Metis, and Inuit friends who bear the heavy weight of this case, which is re-traumatizing to people on so many levels.

Back to marking….



Indigenous Law and Procedure in Action: Vancouver Island Esquimalt/Ditidaht Hunting Case

Roosevelt Elk

The TRC Calls to Action speak to the importance (for law students, lawyers, doctors, nurses, journalists, bureaucrats, citizens) of learning about:

  • Treaties
  • Aboriginal rights
  • Indigenous law
  • Aboriginal-Crown Relations

If you are looking for examples of the application of Indigenous Law and procedure in a contemporary context, then here is a great case for you, “In the matter of R v. Joseph Thomas and R v. Christopher Brown and Esquimalt and Ditidaht Nations

The case started in BC Provincial Court, involving two men who were charged with hunting/poaching in violation of the BC Wildlife Act.  I first heard about the case in a newspaper report, and was completely taken with it!

This case has been positively hope-inducing in me (a less than common feeling for one who spends much of her time teaching Canadian Criminal Law).  Below is a copy of the ILRU Case Note, followed by a few thoughts on ways this case might be used in a variety of law school contexts/courses.

ILRU Case Note: In the matter of R v. Joseph Thomas and R v. Christopher Brown and Esquimalt and Ditidaht Nations

Map of BC First Nations

Context: Two Coast Salish men from the urban Esquimalt nation (in Victoria) were charged by conservation officers with two counts of poaching under the BC Wildlife Act. The two men initially asserted what they believed was a treaty right to hunt on unoccupied Crown land. However, the Ditidaht [1] (in whose historic territory the Esquimalt men had been hunting), were concerned about over-hunting of Roosevelt Elk.  They were in favour of conservation, and the conviction of poachers.

As things unfolded, it also became clear that the two Esquimalt hunters had not sought permission from the Ditidaht to hunt in their territory, nor had they complied with Indigenous conventions in the manner of their hunt, breaching both Ditidaht and Esquimalt legal principles, and bringing shame on the communities.

Application: The case was heard in First Nations Court by Justice Marion Buller (now Chief Commissioner for the MMIWG Inquiry). With the consent of the Crown, the accused and the two concerned Nations, the Court made space for the Esquimalt and Ditidaht communities to work together, using their respective laws and procedures, to resolve the case.

The intial hearing, drawing on Coast Salish procedures for dispute resolution, involved a larger number of interested parties, including Elders, Chiefs, Counsellors and other members of the Esquimalt, Cowichan and Ditidaht nations. The communities spoke to not only current treaty and provincial law, but also to older laws between the two nations respecting hunting. They agreed that seeking permission from the other community was a fundamental law that continued to have force. The hunters accepted responsibility for their conduct, and agreed to accept the resolution that would be determined by the nations.

A number of procedural steps were necessary, as the violation of law here imposed responsibilities on not only the two hunters, but the Esquimalt community as a whole. As a result, the hunters were required to visit each household in Esquimalt to tell them what they had done, and to invite them to a meeting, which would be held in the Esquimalt Long House and involving people from both nations. At this meeting (180 people in attendance), representatives of the Ditidaht were wrapped in blankets and presented with gifts as a way of acknowledging the harm that was done, and committing to the re-establishment of good relations. The hunters are to refrain from hunting for a year, and are required to do work for the community, doing maintenance and service at the longhouse at least twice a week for the year. This was to function not as punishment, but as an opportunity to be a model for youth, and to demonstrate the continuing obligations and operation of Coast Salish and Ditidaht law.

Significance: This case is a powerful and hopeful example of the application of Indigenous law in ways that provide a meaningful resolution to a very real problem. A second important dimension of this case is that it is an example of intersocietal law. That is, this is not only a conflict over hunting, but a conflict between communities from two distinct legal orders. It shows the power of Indigenous law and procedure to create the conditions for people from different legal traditions to come together to work through a shared problem in ways which link in appropriate decision-makers, who are positioned to better identify the challenges, and construct meaningful solutions. Note that the procedures also supported an increase in legal literacy (increased familiarity in each community with the legal terrain of the other), and the building of community connections.

Even more powerfully, in the process of resolving this specific hunting/poaching claim, the two communities were able to identify a bigger systemic challenge:  given the pattern of land development in this territory, the Esquimalt do not have access to many areas in which to exercise hunting rights. There is thus a pressure to hunt in the other territory with potential to impact on wildlife.

The result of the case has thus also been that the two First Nations have begun discussions aimed at developing protocols to govern hunting in Ditidaht territory by Esquimalt members, to support the ability of people in urban settings to have access to hunting.

In short, what could have otherwise been a conventional hunting sentencing case instead has produced an outcome which:

  1. Attends to questions of human safety (drawing on indigenous laws and protocols governing ways, times, and places in which hunting can happen),
  2. Attends to questions of conservation (drawing on Indigenous laws related to stewardship of land and animals),
  3. Attends to questions of inter-community conflict, drawing on the point of contact as an occasion to work together to collectively address a shared problem.

[1] The Ditidaht and the Pacheenaht people speak closely-related dialects of a language called Nitinaht or “Ditidaht.” Ditidaht, is one of three closely-related languages (Nitinaht, Makah, and Westcoast or Nuu-chah-nulh) forming the South Wakashan sub-group of the Wakashan Language Family. The Nitinaht and Makah languages are much more closely related to each other than they are to Nuu-chah-nulh. From http://www.ditidaht.ca/.


  • one could supplement this case through reference to two ILRU reports:  Coast Salish Legal Traditions Report; ILRU, Coast Salish Civil Procedure Report
  • There are some helpful video talks available on line on Coast Salish Legal Traditions & the Canadian State by Professor Sarah Morales.


  • This case is great for teaching “Sentencing”.   It was really wonderful to be able to give students some examples of sentencing cases that did not induce despair.  It was also useful for helping them see that some cases may involve MORE work for offenders, rather than less.  Certainly, the students would agree that it would not be ‘easy’ to have to go door to door in the community to let people know about a wrong you had done.  The case also made visible the ways that many people in a community could be brought together in order to produce a meaningfully better outcome.
  • This case is great for troubling the divide between Criminal/Provincial offences, particularly in the context of Indigenous Laws.  To call a hunting case ‘provincial’ is in many ways to fundamentally misconstrue the depth of relationships between indigenous peoples and animals.  In many contexts, it is perhaps most appropriate to understand the relations between many Indigenous peoples and animals through the language of treaty (this is visible in Westcoast Nation stories about the Salmon People, or in Plains stories like The Buffalo Child).  This is visible in this hunting case, where Esquimalt and Ditidaht parties agreed that, in the past, a second violation of laws around hunting could have resulted in the punishment of death.  This indicates the importance of Indigenous laws pertaining to human/animal relations.  Michael Ashe’s 1989 article on asche-wildlife-cpp-1989 might be a useful resource for supplementing such a discussion.
  • This case is great for exploring Conflict Resolution in the context of International Law.   On the one hand, this case could be treated as simply as instance of alternative measures within Criminal Law.  However, there are powerful reasons to see this as rather an example of conflict at the intersection of THREE legal orders (BC/Canadian; Esquimalt; Ditidaht).  What we see in some ways is the visionary willingness of the BC Court System to step to the side, to make space for the other two first nations to draw on their own legal procedures and institutions to solve a challenge that touched deeply on legal obligations and responsibilities in those nations.  The eventual solution is one that accords with the needs of all three legal orders.  From my perspective as a reader, it seemed that the Esquimalt and Ditidaht legal orders contained powerful problem solving resources, ones that provided a very successful resolution, one that is hard to imagine within the more conventional boundaries of the BC Wildlife Act. The case provides a great model for dispute resolution between conflicting legal orders.





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.


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.

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.


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?


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).


  • 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.


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).


  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.

Integrating property

Among McGill’s responses to the TRC recommendations will be a new property course that will integrate resources from common law, civil law, and indigenous traditions. This mandatory course will replace mandatory courses in Civil Law Property and Common Law Property. The change is part of a wider-scale program renewal – aiming to significantly enhance the student experience through changes to substance and modes of delivery – that we’ll start unrolling in September 2016. Since students won’t take the new course until their second year, we’ll first offer it in 2017-2018. Accordingly, we’re not able yet to give details, but I think our ambitious project is still worth sharing as sister faculties work through appropriate responses to the TRC’s call for action.

The property course will join other integrated or “transsystemic” courses, such as Contractual Obligations, Extra-contractual Obligations, and Family Law, that have formed pillars of the McGill Program since 1999. The new course represents a deepening of our commitment to legal education that crosses traditional boundaries. The course represents a deepening of our commitment in another sense, too, as we haven’t fully realized our ambitions for transsystemic legal education at McGill to reach beyond the traditions of the common law and civil law to embrace others, such as indigenous legal traditions. Property is especially crucial on this point, of course, as the effacement of indigenous conceptions of land use and belonging have played such a central role in colonialism.

Colleagues of mine will give shape to this course during the coming academic year. Already, though, our experience with integrating legal traditions in other courses allows me to offer several observations that I think will apply at McGill and that might be helpful as others reflect, debate, and dream.

First, it doesn’t work to wait until you’re fully ready for such an endeavour before deciding to do it. At a certain point, you have to commit and leap, trusting that you’ll get there and knowing that many of us work better under the healthy pressure that a deadline imposes. It’s a mistake to let perfectionism hobble the exercise.

Second, a course integrating two or more traditions, including indigenous legal traditions, shouldn’t and can’t be only or primarily a functional comparison leading to assessments of what is the ‘better solution’. Instead, it should and can aim to appreciate the traditions’ respective legal cultures, such as their forms of knowledge, evidence, and reasoning.

Third, be cautious about overarching narratives, which risk being simplistic – be they ones of radical difference or of fundamental sameness.

Fourth, it’s important to avoid translating one tradition into the technical vocabulary of the other. Relatedly, there will not be equivalents within one tradition for every legal idea encountered in another. Some students who wish to make comparative charts or tables will occasionally push you to tell them the equivalent so that they can fill in each cell. Sometimes the answer is that there isn’t one, or that we don’t think there is, or that we’re not sure.

Fifth, however you think about your tradition-specific courses, the ambition in an integrated course may well not be comprehensive ‘coverage’. The hope is that students will acquire an appreciation for each tradition and its resources such that they could begin researching and solving problems within it. But you likely will not ‘cover everything’ or even ‘cover everything important.’ Or, as a colleague said to me, maybe you can, but your definition of what is ‘important’ may change radically!

Transsystemic teaching requires humility and a willingness to take risks. It highlights and foregrounds what the study of law can and should be in general. It is a stimulating adventure, one that changes you as it changes your students. The experience at McGill – which we are keen to deepen as we act purposively in response to the TRC – has shown us that the payoff is worth the candle.