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Beyond Mandatory Courses: Indigenous Legal Education for Genuine Change

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,

Earlier this week, we discussed Call to Action 28, and how it has not been implemented as thoughtfully as needed.

University of Alberta professor Tamara (Baldhead) Pearl believes that legal education is “‘ground zero’ for reconciliation in Alberta. Legal education teaches a system, and this legal system, which structures our government and society, is fertile soil for genuine change."

Today I will look at some alternate methods of providing Indigenous Legal Systems education, and how they have been implemented across Canada. These alternate implementations can illustrate how law schools can move beyond checking the box for Call to Action 28 and promote meaningful change.

Photo Credit: Citizens for Public Justice,

Robson Hall at University of Manitoba

In 2016, following the Calls to Action, the University of Manitoba released a statement that they will continue to incorporate Indigenous content into courses, pending a curriculum review. I spoke to Paige Gratton, who completed her first year of law at the University of Manitoba, about what this looked like during her first year. She shared that Indigenous learning was integrated naturally into each class through selected case law, and reading the Calls to Action in the legal methods class. A virtual tour (because of COVID) to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation was also a foundational introduction to Indigenous peoples and legal systems in Canada, with a focus on reading each treaty.

In 2021, Robson Hall finally announced that they will be introducing a course on Indigenous Methodologies and Perspectives that will be mandatory for all second-year law students starting in 2023. Despite taking many years to complete a curriculum review and to introduce a mandatory course, the University of Manitoba stands out amongst Canadian law schools with upcoming experiential learning opportunities that directly assist Indigenous people. Starting in fall 2023, law students can participate in an Indigenous Law Clinic where, amongst other things, students will help with applications for Indigenous Status. [1] Opportunities such as this show a commitment to continuous reconciliation for law students, and a commitment to making real changes in society.

University of Victoria

The University of Victoria is the first school in Canada, and the world, to offer a joint Juris Doctor (JD) and Juris Indigenarum Doctor (JID). Students in this program receive education in both Canadian Common Law and Indigenous Legal Orders. This unique program “compares common law with Indigenous legal traditions” throughout all the core courses in first year, recognizing and appreciating that there are multiple legal systems at play in Canada. [2] In both second and third year, a full term is spent in community-led field schools, immersing students in the traditions that they have been learning about.

This program not only recognizes that Indigenous legal systems and traditions continue to operate in Canada, but prepares students to practice law within these systems. This is a crucial step towards reconciliation and paving the way for both a legal system and a society that upholds commitments made through treaties.

The overrepresentation of Indigenous people in common and civil law systems exemplifies that assimilation and colonisation are continuing to this day. A better Canada would allow Indigenous legal systems to exist simultaneously with common law, and this program prepares lawyers to navigate both.

University of Ottawa

The University of Ottawa offers an option to specialize in Aboriginal Law and Indigenous Legal Traditions. They state that this option can appeal “to those who wish to understand Indigenous legal traditions and how they can be recognized alongside common law and civil law within Canada’s legally plural society.” [3]

Similarly to the University of Victoria, this option recognizes the importance of learning about Indigenous legal systems, to further affirm their existence and importance in Canada. Canada formally recognizes two legal systems- common law and civil law. [4] However, a true commitment to reconciliation would see Canada recognizing Indigenous legal traditions as a third legal system. While Section 35 guarantees the right to sovereignty, there have been, and will continue to be, overlaps in jurisdiction on legal matters. Preparing lawyers to be culturally competent in a deeper way than a single mandatory class, is a way to further reconciliation and create genuine change in society.

Why it Matters

A deep and meaningful understanding of Indigenous legal systems and traditions will contribute to an effective and long-term solution to problems that plague Indigenous communities. [5] Using and incorporating Indigenous laws, traditions, and healing practices, will allow the justice system to continue advancing reconciliation.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action need to be a starting point for reconciliation, and not a goalpost. Once a Call to Action is fulfilled, the box should not be checked off and forgotten about. Law schools should be continuously revisiting their curriculums and finding ways to promote and celebrate the Indigenous legal systems that are the original law of the land. While a mandatory course is a positive step, immersive experiential learning, joint degrees acknowledging and comparing legal systems, and opportunities to specialize in Indigenous legal traditions show a great commitment to reconciliation and meaningful change.

Photo Credit: Citizens for Public Justice, "Restoring Indigenous Rights" (August 2020), online: <>.

[1] University of Manitoba, Robson Hall, “Indigenous Initiatives” (last visited 05 October 2022), online: <>.

[2] University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law, “Option in Aboriginal Law and Indigenous Legal Traditions” (last visited 05 October 2022), online: <>.

[3] University of Victoria Faculty of Law, “Joint Degree Program in Canadian Common Law and Indigenous Legal Orders (JD/JID)” (last viewed 05 October 2022), online: <>.

[4] Department of Justice Canada, “Canada’s System of Justice“ (last modified 13 September 2021), online: <>.

[5] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (Ottawa, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015) at 212.

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