McGill course teaches law students Indigenous legal traditions

Canadian law schools look to meet recommendation made by Truth and Reconciliation Commission

mcgill law

McGill University Prof. Hoi Kong, Val Napoleon, director of the Indigenous law research unit at the University of Victoria, and Hadley Friedland, a professor in Indigenous law at the University of Alberta, co-taught the one-week course on Indigenous law at McGill in Montreal. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)


The law school at Montreal's McGill University is known for being a place where students learn both civil and common law traditions.

But a new course for first-year students is further expanding that legal horizon.

In the one-week intensive course at the beginning of the winter session, students are taught about Indigenous legal traditions, and then apply them to case studies based on real issues affecting Indigenous communities.

'We're really looking at teaching them to learn how to learn, to learn how to listen, so they can identify Indigenous laws when they're out there in practice.' - Hadley Friedland, University of Alberta

The course is part of McGill's response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which recommended Canadian law students learn more about Indigenous law and how Indigenous people have interacted with the justice system.

"I think now is an important moment to make sure we take our obligations to instructing students and giving students an exposure to Indigenous law very seriously. I think we're at an historic moment," said Prof. Hoi Kong, who teaches the course.

Canadian law schools turn to Indigenous traditions

In its final report, the TRC said Canadian law schools have a special responsibility to ensure students know the history and legacy of residential schools, Indigenous law and Aboriginal–Crown relations.

But understanding Indigenous legal traditions is only one aspect of the recommendation.

The other is looking at how the Canadian justice system often works against Indigenous people, a task that requires training in "conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism," the TRC said.

In his autumn 2016 report, Canada's auditor general, Michael Ferguson, highlighted that Indigenous people make up just three per cent of the adult population, but account for 26 per cent of the inmates in federal institutions.

McGill law

Law students at McGill University attend a course on Indigenous legal traditions. (CBC)

In a symbolic gesture last fall, the university moved Hochelaga Rock, a granite slab commemorating the Iroquois village that once stood on the grounds of what is now downtown Montreal, to a more prominent spot in front of its Sherbrooke Street entrance.

The university also launched a task force to recruit and retain more Indigenous students, staff and faculty.

Other institutions have take similar steps.

Law schools at the University of British Columbia and at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., have also established mandatory courses in Aboriginal law and intercultural training.

The University of Victoria has gone even further, proposing a joint degree in Canadian common law and Indigenous law.

'Beyond courts or police'

Hadley Friedland, who teaches Indigenous law at the University of Alberta and co-instructed McGill's course, acknowledged the new course is limited in scope, given the time frame.

"In a week, we're really looking at teaching them to learn how to learn, to learn how to listen, so they can identify Indigenous laws when they're out there in practice," she said.

Friedland explained there is no single set of Indigenous laws, but that legal traditions differ from First Nation to First Nation and among other Aboriginal groups across Canada.

In general, though, she said the course "goes beyond courts or police or buildings that we imagine. We're talking about the way people solve problems, the way Indigenous people keep each other safe and have kept each other safe, the way Indigenous people organize themselves and come up with solutions as a collective."

Mcgill University

McGill University and other academic institutions across Canada are trying to meet the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (McGill University)

Val Napoleon, director of the Indigenous law research unit at University of Victoria and a member of Saulteau First Nation, said the course looks at how Indigenous oral history and traditions should be taken seriously as legal precedent and can be applied to real issues Indigenous communities are now struggling with.

"They were able to take the big learning, the big questions and say how would it apply on the ground, with real people in a real community," she said.

Val Napoleon

Val Napoleon is a member of Saulteau First Nation and director of theIndigenous law research unit at the University of Victoria, which has proposed a joint degree in Canadian common law and Indigenous law. (CBC)

"It's so exciting. You can feel the energy, and the excitement and the young, supple minds taking up information," she said.

Jan Nato said being a student in the course is inspiring.

"For me as a human being, more than just a law student, I think it's integral that we are participating in this revival of an identity. It's not just the laws," Nato said.

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