British Columbia

'You're trailblazers': University of Victoria launches world's 1st Indigenous law degree program

The four-year degree, which combines the study of Indigenous and non-Indigenous law, is a step toward reshaping the colonial legacy in the current legal system, says Melanie Mark, B.C.'s minister of advanced education.

Combined degree a step toward reconciliation and reshaping colonial legacy in legal system, minister says

Melanie Mark, B.C.'s advanced education minister, hugs Val Napoleon, UVic law professor and program director, during a ceremony to celebrate the new Indigenous law degree. (UVic)

It's being hailed as a critical step toward reconciliation.

In four years time, a group of University of Victoria students will graduate with a historic degree that combines Indigenous and non-Indigenous law.

"We finally have hope that the world is actually changing," said Susan Breau, dean of law at UVic, noting the joint degree is the first of its kind in the world.

"This isn't just about action in a university, but action in a community, developing Indigenous law in consultation with the elders, with the chiefs, with communities."

'Our laws have never gone away'

Students in the program will graduate with degrees in Canadian Common Law and Indigenous Legal Orders.

They will also participate in field studies in Indigenous communities across the country and will take on issues facing many of those communities, such as child welfare, environmental protection and housing.

Student Colby Lizotte speaks during the ceremony to launch the Indigenous law degree at UVic. (UVic)

The program is a step toward reshaping the colonial legacy that is present in the current legal system, said Melanie Mark, B.C.'s minister of advanced education, who is of Nisga'a, Gitxsan, Cree, Ojibway, French and Scottish heritage.

"You're trailblazers," she told students during a ceremony at First Peoples House at UVic to officially launch the program. 

"We are resilient Indigenous people. And our laws have never gone away. Today is about affirming our place as Indigenous people in Canada, around the world."

$2.25M funding

The program was also created in response to Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the university said.

The laws and legal traditions of Indigenous communities were hampered by attempts at assimilation such as residential schools.

The TRC's call to action No. 50 asked governments to fund Indigenous law institutes. The B.C. government has budgeted $2.25 million over two years to help support the UVic program.

Colby Lizotte, a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta, says she enrolled after studying criminology. 

"What really stuck out to me was the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in incarceration, so I just wanted to help people understand and help people navigate themselves through the system when they find themselves in contact with it."

UVic is also home to an Indigenous Law Research Unit that works to put Indigenous legal traditions on equal footing with Canadian common law.

In four years, the initial class of 26 students is expected to graduate with Indigenous law degrees, helping to put that research into practice.

"We have been talking and dreaming of this day for so long, it almost doesn't feel real," said Val Napoleon, a UVic law professor and program director. 

"But here we are. This is really happening."

Read more from CBC British Columbia