Update on Aboriginal Initiatives at Lakehead’s Faculty of Law

Update on Aboriginal Initiatives at Lakehead’s Faculty of Law


Our program at Lakehead University’s Bora Laskin Faculty of Law is unique in that we have three mandatory courses dealing with Aboriginal legal issues :  

1.  Aboriginal Perspectives

Aboriginal Perspectives is an experiential learning course. It is mandatory for our first year students, and it takes place throughout their first year. It gives students an opportunity to begin to immerse themselves in Indigenous worldviews. Students receive teachings over the course of a number of weeks from an Anishinabe elder and from a Métis knowledge-holder. They receive guidance on how to engage respectfully with Indigenous communities. Our hope is that these teachings will help to fulfill the recommendation to provide training in intercultural competency. Students also hear from guest speakers, such as Indigenous leaders, members of the Indigenous legal community, and residential school survivors. Finally, students have the opportunity to supplement these in-class sessions by engaging with Indigenous communities, for example by participating in pow wows, medicine walks, sweat lodges, and other ceremonies.

2.  Indigenous Legal Traditions

Indigenous Legal Traditions is a one-semester course that is mandatory for our first year students. It takes place during the first semester of first year and is divided into two sections of 30 students. In it, we focus on the legal traditions of the Anishinabek and Métis nations, given our presence within the traditional territory of the Anishinabe and within the traditional homeland of the Métis.

We begin by discussing Anishinabek stories, including creation stories and Nanabushu or Nanabush stories. To draw out normative principles from these stories, we use a talking circle. We also meet in our Restorative Justice Room which has a panoramic view of what non-Aboriginal Canadians know as the Sleeping Giant, but the Anishinabe know as Nanabushu. So as we discuss stories about Nanabushu, he rests right outside our window.

In Indigenous Legal Traditions, students also receive teachings from the land. Our law school has been extremely fortunate to have developed a relationship with members of the Fort William First Nation (located beside Thunder Bay), who are working to revitalize a sugar bush located on the side of the mountain within their reserve. They have very generously invited us to the sugar bush, where students experience principles of Anishinabe governance – such as the principles gleaned from our talking circles – in operation.

We then consider the history of Aboriginal-Crown relations from an Anishinabe perspective, or more specifically, from the perspective we developed from the stories and the sugar bush, as supplemented by the teachings the students received in their Aboriginal Perspectives course from an Anishinabe elder. This includes a discussion of treaty relationships, as well as the effects of the imposition of the Indian Act and the residential schools system.

With respect to Métis law, some of the sources that we use in this course include the excerpt on the buffalo hunt from Alexander Ross’s The Red River Settlement: Its Rise, Progress and Present State, Brenda Macdougall’s One of the Family, and Adam Gaudry’s PhD dissertation entitled Kaa-tipeyimishoyaahk - ‘We are those who own ourselves’:
A Political History of Métis Self-Determination in the North-West, 1830-1870.

One of the modes of evaluation for Indigenous Legal Traditions is a talking circle assignment, in which the class is divided in half and each group of 15 students is given a fact scenario about a hypothetical Anishinabe community facing numerous interrelated legal issues. Each group works together to find resolutions to these problems by using a talking circle to apply Anishinabek laws to the fact scenario. This assignment is a way of providing skills-based training in conflict resolution. Students learn to actually apply the protocols and principles of a talking circle to novel facts, and to solve the legal conflicts experienced by a hypothetical Anishinabe community by using Anishinabe law.

3.  Aboriginal Law

Aboriginal Law is a mandatory, full-year course in second year. Our program has 60 students per year. Thus far, Aboriginal Law has been taught in one section comprising all 60 students. It focuses on Canadian laws applied to Aboriginal peoples.  The first semester and part of the second semester are dedicated to section 35(1) jurisprudence on Aboriginal and treaty rights, as well as Crown obligations such as the Crown’s fiduciary duty, the duty to consult and accommodate, and the honour of the Crown. We engage in a critical evaluation of that jurisprudence and its underlying tenets, such as the assumption of Crown sovereignty over Aboriginal peoples and Aboriginal territory, and the role that the doctrine of discovery plays in that assumption. Other topics covered in the second semester include: section 25 of the Charter, federalism issues related to Aboriginal peoples, comprehensive claims and specific claims, Aboriginal identity including registration under the Indian Act, band councils, band membership, membership in Métis communities, band council elections, Indian reserves, the Canadian Human Rights Act as it pertains to Aboriginal peoples, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Our program is still a work in progress; each year, we strive to improve. One way we do this is through our Aboriginal Advisory Committee. In September 2013, our Faculty of Law signed a Protocol Agreement with the four Indigenous nations most closely involved with our law school: the Anishinabek Nation (Union of Ontario Indians), Grand Council Treaty #3, Métis Nation of Ontario, and Nishnawbe Aski Nation. Pursuant to this Agreement, we meet regularly with representatives of these four nations to obtain their feedback on our program. 

Karen Drake is an assistant professor at the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law at Lakehead University. She can be reached at kdrake@lakeheadu.ca