Thunder Bay

LU accused of watering down aboriginal law course

Some Lakehead University students allege changes to a course at the new law school thins out the aboriginal studies component — a claim the university refutes.

Student complains aboriginal course doesn't look at law from first nations' perspective

Port Arthur Collegiate Institute in Thunder Bay will be home to Lakehead University's law school, which is slated to open this fall. Recent changes to the school’s curriculum are spurring debate. (Matt Prokopchuck/CBC )

Some Lakehead University students allege that changing a course at the new law school thins out the Aboriginal studies component — a claim the university refutes.

The original plan was for law students to take a full-credit class on world views from the perspective of Aboriginal people, but last week the university Senate replaced it with a half-credit law course on how those views fit in the legal system.

Lakehead University student Sebastian Murdoch-Gibson says the law school is quietly pushing through changes to an Aboriginal studies course. (Matt Prokopchuk/CBC)

"What they have now done is, before a single class [is] taught, begin scaling back their commitments to Aboriginal people and begin reducing the opportunities to take a look at Western institutions from a [first nations'] perspective," said Bachelor of Arts student Sebastien Murdoch-Gibson, who has taken the course.

Murdoch-Gibson said the focus of the course is now much narrower.

But the dean of the law school denied that's the case.

"There's been no attempt at watering down or anything of that nature. In fact, it's the reverse," Lee Stuesser said.

"What I want to do is ensure that indigenous studies, aboriginal issues, are front and foremost in terms of our program, and I think that's achieved by making it a law course."

Lakehead University law school dean Lee Stuesser says giving an Aboriginal studies course a legal perspective will not water down the First Nations' perspective. (Lakehead University )

Stuesser said the course is given added credibility if it's taught by a full-time member of the law faculty, and added "In terms of the fundamental principles and the importance of aboriginal law, that has not changed one iota."

Taking concerns to president

But to Murdoch-Gibson, the change "effectively takes the course from being one which focuses on the law from the perspective of aboriginal peoples to being a course which focuses on aboriginal peoples from the perspective of the law."

"I think that, in Canada, we have a great deal of evidence to indicate that the law already knows how to focus on aboriginal people," he said.

"This course is not in a position to explore the reasons why indigenous perspectives and European perspectives have been incompatible in the history of our country, and the previous course does."

The new half-credit course will be partnered with another half-credit course on foundations of Canadian law and will be part of the first-year curriculum.

Murdoch-Gibson said he feels the university tried to keep this change quiet and added his group will take its concerns to Lakehead president Brian Stevenson.

Stuesser said that a number of years ago, Ontario law deans raised concerns about having non-law courses taught in law schools.  "I felt the best thing to do was to make it a law course because my experience over the years has been that law students like law courses, and if they perceive something's not a law course, then there's a large measure of dissatisfaction."

The law school is set to open this fall. In 2011, Lakehead University received approval from the province to start up the school after making the case that the law school would emphasize addressing the legal needs of northern First Nations communities.