The Sunday Magazine

University of Victoria to offer world's first degree program in Indigenous law

Val Napoleon is the founder of the Indigenous Law Research Unit at UVic, which has been working to rediscover and rebuild Indigenous legal systems across Canada.
Val Napoleon, founder of the Indigenous Law Research Unit at UVic, speaking with law grad and researcher, Adrienne Macmillan. (University of Victoria)

The Trudeau government has made it clear that it intends to make First Nations self-governance a reality — that it will establish a true, nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples.

It will not be easy, or quick, and it is not without controversy.

Once out from under the authority of the Indian Act, and under their own legal jurisdiction, how will First Nations choose to govern themselves? What principles and processes — and lines of authority and accountability— will organize these societies?

The answers to these questions do not lie only in Canada's legal system.

You can't govern yourself without law. Think about how law is a part of Canadian governance.- Val Napoleon

Before colonization, Indigenous communities had legal orders of their own. The project of rediscovering and rebuilding those systems is already underway.

The epicentre of that work is at the University of Victoria. Last month, the university's law faculty announced that it is launching a new, joint Common law and Indigenous law degree program this fall. It will be the first of its kind in the world.

Val Napoleon, a University of Victoria associate professor, says the new dual focus of the law program will help counter colonial ideas of Indigenous peoples as "lawless." (University of Victoria)

"What is new here is the recognition of Indigenous law as law, to be treated rigorously and comprehensively and formally taught, within a university, alongside equivalent state law, or Canadian law. This is the first dual-degree program where over a four-year period, students will receive an Indigenous law degree and a Canadian law degree," says Val Napoleon, a University of Victoria law professor who has been a driving force behind the initiative.

She is an internationally-acclaimed scholar of Indigenous legal traditions, the founder of the Indigenous Law Research Unit at the University of Victoria, and a member of the Saulteau First Nation in north eastern B.C.

Each Indigenous society has a full scope of law to manage all aspects of messy, collective, human life. The research that we're doing ... includes lands and resources, includes water law, includes governance, how people respond to harms and injuries. Other areas that we're looking at now include child welfare, as well as areas of family law.- Val Napoleon

Napoleon says all human legal orders fall short of their promise, but that Indigenous legal systems worked as well as any others. She believes revitalizing those traditions is an essential part of preparing for self-governance.

"It's not about going back in time, but bringing the best of our historic legal resources forward to deal with contemporary problems," she says.

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.