Sustaining Progress in Indigenous Legal Education

  • March 04, 2023
  • Scott Franks

Education is vital to reconciliation, former Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin affirmed back in 2015: “Those involved with the justice system, be they judges, lawyers or justice officials, should understand indigenous history, legal traditions and customary laws.” A growing number of justices are similarly recognizing that Indigenous legal education is key to transformative change and reconciliation. Since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report and 94 Calls to Action, important progress has been made in Indigenous legal education in Canadian law schools. This momentum must be sustained.

In its final report, the TRC recognized that legal education and training is an essential part of reconciliation. Calls to Action 27 and 28 asks law societies and law schools to require that lawyers receive training in Indigenous and Aboriginal law, the history of residential schools, UNDRIP, the Crown-Indigenous relationship, and treaties. They should also receive skills training in intercultural competency, dispute resolution, anti-racism and human rights. These calls respond to the experiences of residential school survivors. During the claims adjudication process, lawyers and court staff lacked knowledge and cultural awareness related to the experiences and claims of survivors. These calls, however, also advance the broader philosophy underlying the 94 Calls to Action, in particular the ones relating to justice.

The Canadian Council of Law Deans has since released two reports (2018 and 2021) that describe how law schools have undertaken the implementation of Call to Action 28. There are different curricular approaches. Some faculties mandate courses in Indigenous and Aboriginal law; others make them elective. Some offer standalone courses; others integrate them. Some allow students to choose from a “basket” of eligible courses that reflect their unique interests. The University of Victoria Faculty of Law offers a joint degree in Indigenous law —the Indigenous juris doctorThe University of TorontoOsgoode Hall Law School at York Universitythe University of Ottawa and Dalhousie University offer certificates or specializations in Indigenous law. 

Call to Action 28 focuses more on Indigenous cultural competency training, which the University of British Columbia has responded to by offering a certificate program. Law schools are also implementing experiential learning opportunities, such as law camps at University of Victoria and Osgoode Hall, intensives at the University of Alberta and the Lincoln Alexander School of Law at TMU, the legal clinic at the University of British Columbia, and the national Kawaskimhon Aboriginal Law Moot. Many of these initiatives predate the calls and reflect the hard work of Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars.