U of A conference a 'turning point' for Indigenous law

The University of Alberta is bringing academics, elders and students together this weekend to discuss how to incorporate Indigenous reconciliation into Canadian law. It's the last in a three-part series of legal reconciliation conferences hosted for Canada’s 150th anniversary.

The Reconciliation Wahkohtowin conference is looking at how Indigenous law and Canadian law can work together

Scholars, elders and students gathered at the Alberta Art Gallery for the opening night of the Reconciliation Wahkohtowin conference. It's one of three reconciliation conferences hosted across the country during Canada's 150th celebration. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

The University of Alberta is hosting academics, elders and students this weekend to discuss how to incorporate Indigenous reconciliation into Canadian law.

It's the last in a three-part series of reconciliation conferences held across Canada for the country's 150th anniversary, with the Edmonton segment called "Reconciliation Wahkohtowin."

Translated into English, the phrase Wahkohtowin refers to a Cree belief in the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things. The concept is one of the central components of traditional Cree law.  

Paul Paton, dean of the U of A's faculty of law said Thursday the discussions happening around the talks are an important first step towards reconciliation in the Canadian legal system.

Among the speakers at the conference's opening night Thursday was Richard Feehan, Alberta's minister of Indigenous relations. "People in universities 50 or 100 years from now will look back at this time as a turning point," he said.

Alberta Indigenous relations minister Richard Feehan said the discussion about Indigenous law in Canada is at a turning point. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Hadley Friedland, an assistant law professor at the U of A, said it's important the conference is happening now because the Truth and Reconciliation Commission sets out specific recommendations to recognize Indigenous laws and practices.

Twenty-three of the 94 recommendations put forward by the commision include a reference to Indigenous law, including the creation of a mandatory course in Indigenous law for all legal studies students at the university level, and a formal recognition by the federal government of Aboriginal justice systems.

The commission hopes the latter will make Indigenous peoples "full partners of Confederation."

Cree practices could change court decisions

Darcy Lindberg, a Plains Cree graduate student at the University of Victoria, said he is excited to participate in a discussion that affects his people.

"A lot of the challenges Cree people face in Canada are a direct result of a legal system that's been imposed on societies, nations and communities," he said. "We have to make way for Cree law."

Darcy Lindberg, a Plains Cree graduate student, says he is looking forward to the conference so he can discuss issues for his people. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Friedland said the practice of Wahkohtowin could change the way courtrooms work, from issuing verdicts to assigning penalties. For example, she said some courts might not issue definitive penalties for crimes in the tradional legal sense.

Lawyer Alan Hanna said the practice of Wahkohtowin acknowledges that all decisions are interrelated. So, he said, when a Cree person is hunting an animal and makes the decision to kill it, the relationship of the animal to the larger beliefs of the Cree are taken into consideration.

Hanna said the federal government should recognize that Cree people have been making decisions on their lands for generations. "Once the Canadian legal system recognizes that as a given, then we're going start heading down a new path," he said.

While the conference is looking primarily at Cree law, Friedland said policymakers should recognize that Indigenous laws are complex.

Trudeau addresses Indigenous law at UN

On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed inequalities the Canadian legal system has created for First Nations, Metis and Inuit people in a speech at the United Nations General Assembly.

Trudeau said many issues facing Canada's Indigenous peoples including boil-water advisories, high rates of suicide and struggles for adequate education, are a consequence of laws put in place during Canada's confederation.

The prime minister assured the UN that Canadians are working with Indigenous peoples to improve relations.

"The good news is that Canadians get it. They see the inequities. They're fed up with the excuses," Trudeau said. "And that impatience gives us a rare and precious opportunity to act."

Trudeau's remarks are a "good acknowledgement" Friedland said, but added that the dialogue still needs to change.

"We need to stop talking about Indigenous problems and start talking about Canada's problem."

The conference runs until Saturday.