Thinking about “The Law of Evidence” through the Structure of Indigenous Language

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My new favourite book

With classes nearly over this term, I happily turned to my “Books to Read!” pile.   At the top of the pile was a new book by Marianne Ignace and Ron Ignace, Secwépemc People, Land and Laws (McGill-Queen’s Press, 2017).

So many of the summers of my life have been spent on the shores of the Shuswap Lake. The smell of the forests, the feel of the winds, sound of the water, the taste of thimbleberries… all that has been imprinted deep in my heart.  I had been looking forward to spending some time with this book, to continue to learn about the history of the land, the people, and the laws of this place that I so love.  I am only into the 4th chapter, but I am not disappointed.  I can already see that this is going to be a book I will be carrying around with me.

In line, then, with my new goal for myself (to do at least one blogpost a week on what I am learning), let me share one of the amazing things I learned today from the this book.  I learned that the Secwepemc Language is an amazing resource for learning about law!  I finished reading Chapter 4 (“Secwepemctsin: The Shuswap Language”) this afternoon, and then spent the next hour walking up and down the halls of the law school, hunting down colleague after colleague to make them listen to what I had learned (Val, Pooja, Jess, Simon, Tim, and Bob have got to hear my enthusiasm first hand!).

The big discovery for me (on p. 138 of the book) was something called “Evidentials”.  This is a form of suffix that does not exist in English grammar.   In Secwepemctsin, as I understand it from the chapter, a suffix can attach to a verb, in a way that lets the speaker tell the listener about the evidentiary support for the statement.  That is, it indicates how the speaker comes to know the truth of the statement:

  1.  from first hand knowledge,
  2. from hearsay (what others have said), or
  3. because there is physical evidence of the action.

In short, as the Ignaces point out here, when people are telling each other about things that happen in the world, they are also sharing information about the evidence that exists for the statements made.

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Page 138

Of course, we can share information about evidentiary support in the English language: it is just a matter of adding more detail.  And when it comes to legal action, those evidential details matter a lot: if you appear as a witness in  a common-law court, you will be asked how it is you come to know what you know; the presence of physical evidence to support the claim is alway relevant; there are all sorts of rules to govern hearsay evidence.  That is, there is much to explore around evidentiary rules related to the relevance, credibility, reliability and sources of statements.

But there is something so interesting in how such questions are organized in Secwepemctsin in part through grammar.  Questions of evidence seem to be woven into the structure of speech and thought (rather than being separate questions emerging primarily in the context of formal legal settings.)  An orientation towards evidence is embedded in grammar itself.

What is so beautiful to me (or do I just mean mean ‘surprising’?)  is that the structure of Secwepemctsin itself, as a language, orients itself towards transparency in the  practices of validating knowledge.  Grammatically, people tell each other not only what they know, but HOW they know it.  This means speakers are grammatically required to make (suffix based) choices about the actions they describe, and listeners have the capacity to make choices about further inquiries needed on the basis of what they hear. Given suffixes, they can determine whether to seek further information from others, or to validate information by looking to physical traces to support what they have heard.  Certainly, this requires speakers and listeners to engage their own faculties of reasoning in conversation, by reminding them that all statements have an evidentiary status of some sort.  This is such a sophisticated and nuanced structure of thought.   I have been reading a number of Secwepemc stories in English, and I have a new appreciation for the ways that that the stories, in their original language, would be carrying additional information and nuance.

This encouraged me to go back to the TRC calls to action, and the section on Language.   Call #14 says “We call upon the federal government to enact an Aboriginal Languages Act that incorporates the following principles:

(i) Aboriginal languages are a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society, and there is an urgency to preserve them.

There are interesting challenges in thinking about how each of us is invited to make the TRC Calls to Action “our own”.  Call 14 aims at the federal government, and it asks for legislation:  it is easy to see this call as within purview of others.  And yet, there is something important in acknowledging that we are each in some way called to think about our relationship to the PRINCIPLES that are identified here.  In learning more about Secwepemctsin (the language of the Secwepemc peoples), and about the place of evidentials in that language, I came to appreciate the importance of the principle expressed in TRC Call to Action #14: ‘that Aboriginal languages are a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society’.   There are very good reasons for all Canadians to begin to learn with and about the Indignenous languages of this country.

One starting point might be this book.  Certainly, its discussion of Evidential Suffixes, is a wonderful way to draw insights from Indigenous Language and Indigenous Law into the Evidence Law classroom!  Can’t wait to learn more from what Marianne Ignace and Ron Ignace have brought together in this book!

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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.

 

 

 

Tips for Organizing Reconciliation Events

Tasha Henry (who wrote the post on “Art as Intervention“) sent an additional note pointing to a toolkit resource they had found especially helpful for teachers and professionals trying to organize reconciliation events.  She noted the following tips:

  • Ensure that the location is culturally safe and accessible to everyone invited.
  • Ensure proper acknowledgement of the territory at the start of the event.
  • Where possible, invite an Elder to open the event with a blessing and invite them to give you direction and advice to ensure proper protocol is being followed. Be sure to find out how best to honour their time and contribution.
  • Where possible, explore ways to incorporate Indigenous cultural practices into the event in a respectful manner, such as singing and drumming by Indigenous community members. Make sure to honour this contribution.
  • Approach guests/speakers as early as possible, and ensure that all aspects of the event including honorariums are clearly communicated in writing.
  • Arrange for food and drinks. Sharing food is an essential part of the event.
  • Where possible, invite participants across sectors and cultures (e.g. multicultural organizations, Indigenous organizations, faith based organizations, the justice system, restorative justice groups, Ministry of Children and Family Development, First Nations Court workers, social service workers, counsellors, health care professional, women’s organizations, child and family services etc.)
  • This discussion may be triggering to some participants, so make sure that supports and opportunities for debriefing are available on-site.
  • Consider funding costs to cover transportation for guest speakers if required.

(Reference: Eguchi, L., Riley, J., Nelson, N., Adonri, Q., & Trotter, S. (2016). Towards a New Relationship: Tool Kit for Reconciliation/Decolonization of Social Work Practice at the Individual, Workplace, and Community Level. Vancouver, BC: British Columbia Association of Social Workers. Retrieved from: http://www.bcasw.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Reconciliation-Toolkit-Final_May-11.pdf