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TRC Call to Action 28: How Mandatory Courses Can Create Unsafe Spaces

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,

As the dust settles on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, we, here on the blog, want to remind you all that reconciliation should be a continuous process, one that is considered all year long, and not just on September 30th. We hope that you spent some time reflecting on how you can participate in reconciliation and carry that with you every day.

With that, for the month of October, we are going to focus on the topic of education and consider how it fits within the reconciliation puzzle. This week, we are focusing specifically on the education of the legal profession, including law students, and the role they play in reconciliation.

TRC Call to Action #28 calls upon Canadian law schools to require all law students to take a course on “Aboriginal people and the law”.[1] Although some Canadian law schools, including the University of Alberta, have introduced this requirement, other schools have not.[2] Aside from the obvious shortcoming of some universities failing to implement the requirement, I argue that if the requirement isn’t implemented thoughtfully, and with the consultation of Indigenous scholars and students, the mandatory courses could turn into unsafe spaces for Indigenous students.

University of Alberta Faculty of Law Class of 2024 at Orientation

Photo Credit: University of Alberta Faculty of Law:

Before the Indigenous course requirement, my experience with Indigenous-focused courses was an incredibly positive one. Indigenous and non-Indigenous students were coming together in a space to learn, and with them, they brought their passion and genuine interest. Class discussions were full of engagement and respect, as every student in that class wanted to be there.

Now, imagine adding a number of students to that room that are only there because they are required to be. Some of these students may bring prejudice, resentment, or ambivalence with them into the classroom, which can then be reflected in their comments, actions, and body language. Now, instead of having the engaged and respectful room you had before, you have a complex and potentially uncomfortable situation where Indigenous students may not feel empowered to speak up.

This negative side of the Indigenous course requirement isn’t talked about enough but is incredibly important to the experience of Indigenous students in law school. That is why it is so crucial to implement this Call to Action carefully. One way the University of Alberta has tried to lessen the negative impacts is by requiring applications for some of the seminar-type Indigenous courses, to ensure that the students being approved to take the courses will come in with a sense of respect and an open mind. The larger and more general lecture-type courses, however, are free game for any student to take. Although the seminar-type classes remain comfortable spaces due to entrance considerations, these large lectures have the potential to become uncomfortable and unsafe spaces for students with a genuine interest in Indigenous and Aboriginal law.

So, as other schools continue to implement course requirements under TRC Call to Action #28, it is crucial that they consult with faculty and students to ensure that the classrooms remain a safe and welcoming space that is conducive to learning. It will not be an easy feat to force uninterested students to take courses on a topic that they don’t believe they should have to take. However, it is these students that need to take these courses the most. If taking the courses can shift the mindsets of just even a few students, I have higher hopes for what they can achieve in practice and how they can become more informed and respectful lawyers who play such a crucial role in the reconciliation process.

Until next time,

Team Reconcili-ACTION YEG

[1] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action (Ottawa: Public Works and Government Services Canada, 2015) at 28. [2] “JD Course Requirements”, online (pdf): Queen’s University <chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/>.

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