Skip to Content

Working together, helping one another

Engaging māmawī wīcihitowin in heeding the TRC’s Call to Action #28 in Alberta legal education.

Tamara (Baldhead) Pearl, PhD in Law
Tamara (Baldhead) Pearl, PhD in Law

The tragic find on the former ground of the Kamloops residential school of the remains of at least 215 children on the lands of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, is but one example of communities leading the rest of Canada to understand the necessity of immersing ourselves in the work of reconciliation through partnership. There is no way back from the horrific colonial history that exacted such genocide. Working in partnership is as important as it ever could be for our future generations.

Legal education, in my opinion, is “ground zero” for reconciliation in Alberta. It teaches a legal system, which structures our government and society and is fertile soil for genuine change. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Final Report framed reconciliation as a process requiring education and systemic change, including a renewal of the relationship between Canada’s state-based legal system and Indigenous peoples’ own laws. It underscores the need to recognize that Indigenous legal traditions exist and to start learning and engaging with them more respectfully. Where this starting point begins for law schools is explicit in Call to Action #28, requiring all law students to take a course in Aboriginal people and the law, including the history and legacy of residential schools and incorporating skills-based training in intercultural competency.

Law schools have the intellectual capacity to explore the limitations and possibilities of this Call to Action. However, incorporating Indigenous legal traditions into the standard law school setting and practices of the Western legal tradition has proven to be quite challenging. Education at all levels in the province of Alberta must confront the educational deficit created by settler colonialism and its self-serving narratives of dominance. Alberta is no different from any other province in Canada in this respect.

The challenges to implementing Call to Action #28 go beyond path dependencies and resistance to change one expects to face when proposing to create (and maintain) a new mandatory law course that disrupts the status quo. We need to carefully reflect on how we can bring about a more equitable and respectful relationship between Indigenous and Western laws in law schools and legal practice that does not simply subsume Indigenous legal traditions into state law and the internal logic of settler society. “Indigenizing” legal education is not the same as “decolonizing” the curriculum.  Though both are contested terms, I think of Indigenizing as respectfully engaging with Indigenous communities to create meaningful partnerships, using treaty relationships as a guide. Decolonization is to focus on reducing settler harm.

Reconciliation is neither a myth nor simply a buzzword, although the term may be overused if not abused at times. It first emerged as a political process in the international decolonization movement for the removal of colonial powers from Asian, African, and Middle Eastern countries after the Second World War. The international movement has since adopted it for Indigenous self-determination, through which Indigenous nations and peoples seek decolonization within nation states with settler-colonial histories, as reflected in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

We are all victims of settler colonialism. Settler colonialism and its effects fall along a spectrum, with total marginalization on one end, and privileged domination on the other. Where we stand on this spectrum from subordination to domination will be different for each of us, whether we are Indigenous or settlers.

It is important to explore why Call to Action #28 highlights “skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.” In tandem with the creation of a mandatory course in Alberta law schools, I propose the development of anti-dominance training using a decolonial framework. What does this mean? As a self-regulating profession, it would push us to confront the dominance that naturally occurs in any power-imbalanced relationship. It is the settler dominance that is reinforced in law schools that I am most concerned with here. Displacing unchallenged and deeply rooted narratives of settler dominance in law schools is a prerequisite for meaningful and mutual reconciliation.

Of course, we need to ensure all law students have at least a basic understanding of the history and legacies of the residential school system. Treaties, Aboriginal rights, and Aboriginal-Crown relations should not be treated as niche, specialist areas either. Alberta law schools have made considerable effort to address these gaps. Each of these topics has a part to play in ensuring we have a sense of the full, global impact of settler colonialism on Indigenous peoples.

My doctoral research is framed around a Nēhiyawak or Plains Cree concept: māmawī wīcihitowin (meaning “working together, helping one another”). I have proposed using this concept in anti-dominance training for Canadian law school curriculum. The more familiar concept of anti-racism is also important. However, we need to acknowledge that anti-Indigenous racism is distinct from any other form of racism, and so too must our response to it. Indigenous peoples are not minorities that simply seek respect for our differences and some form of protection against adverse treatment within Canadian law and society. Indigenous peoples are distinct nations with our own legal traditions, cultures, and homelands here on Turtle Island, even if the settler-colonial project makes this fact less obvious than it should be.

By framing Indigenous peoples as minorities within a state that is uncritically assumed to be the sole legitimate source of law, white supremacy has become completely entrenched in law school curriculum. Engaging with Indigenous legal traditions offers us the opportunity for a “detox” from settler dominance. This can be done in a sensitive way, guided by critical thinking, and using various methods, including experiential learning, to help law students better prepare to navigate a multi-juridical and decolonized future.

Alberta law schools must be alive to the toxic dominance of settler perspectives in law schools. Call to Action #28 calls for both deconstruction of the status quo and promoting Indigenous self-determination in law school curriculum. We need an anti-colonial coalition of academics, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, committed to continuing the wonderful initiatives already in place and reimagining the possibilities for reconciliation within and through law.