Called to action: A new foundation in Indigenous laws and legal traditions for Common Law students

Faculty of Law - Common Law Section
Common Law Section
Indigenous law

By Common Law

Communication, Faculty of Law

Collage of Indigenous mural, Professor Signa Daum Shanks and Abimi
The 2023-2024 academic year broke new ground for the Common Law Section in its commitment to advancing reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

The most recent cohort of first-year students took part in an immersive program exploring Indigenous laws and legal traditions while learning about the role of Canadian law in colonization and cultivating fresh perspectives about what it means to undertake a career in law.    

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) issued 94 calls to action, including a specific recommendation to law schools – Call to Action 28 – which urged Canada’s law faculties to provide students with a course on Indigenous Peoples and the law. After piloting a program of specialized learning modules in the winter of 2023, the Common Law Section expanded its offering in the 2023-2024 academic year.

For the English Common Law Program, the expanded offering was led by Professors Signa Daum Shanks, Frankie Young and Angela Cameron, and supported by a multitude of guests and visitors. Students took part in seven carefully-crafted modules – each one grounded in one of the Seven Grandfather Teachings – that urged them to consider the past, present and future of law and to bring an open mind to how we think about Indigenous Peoples and laws. Students were challenged to delve deeper into these topics than they may have done in the past and were invited to consider their responsibilities as future leaders in the legal profession. 

During the first week of classes in September, Algonquin community member and Knowledge Holder Fred McGregor of Kitigan Zibi Anishinaabeg was invited to speak about the Seven Grandfather Teachings and offered students some valuable advice on how to approach the upcoming modules. Over the course of two intensive days in October all first-year English Common Law Program students explored the teachings of Truth with Professor Cameron, Humility with Professor Daum Shanks, and Respect with Professor Young. In the Winter Term, guest lecturers were invited to share their perspectives and lived experiences with the students. Caitlin Tolley, a member of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinaabeg nation and a graduate of the Faculty of Law, taught a module on Courage; lawyer and Faculty of Law alum Alisa Lombard, a citizen of the Mi’kmaq Nation, taught a module on Honesty; Professional artist and lawyer Beth Kotierk, also an alum of the Faculty of Law, taught a module on Love; and Members of First Peoples Law, a law firm dedicated to working with Indigenous communities, taught a module on Wisdom.

Seven Star Course Teachings (Truth, Love, Respect, Courage, Wisdom, Honesty, Humility)

Students of the French Common Law Program undertook a separate, but equally inspiring program of study. They met regularly through the fall and winter terms to experience sessions taught by Professor Anne Levesque and Alisa Lombard (who also taught the Honesty model for the English Program). Professor Levesque had participated in delivering the original French Program modules in the winter of 2023, sharing the teaching experience with Professor Aimée Craft, who has served as one of the main architects of this initiative across both English and French programs. For this year’s offering, Professor Levesque instructed students about the historical and contemporary manifestations of colonialism, emphasizing the ongoing practices and power structures that are perpetrated by settlers in Canada and the Canadian state. Students were also called to create a collective guided tour of Ottawa aiming to highlight stories of historical and ongoing discrimination against Indigenous Peoples and resilience through various sites in the city. Students were also encouraged to consider how they could empower themselves to play an active role in reconciliation by taking part in activities in their community.

For her part, Ms. Lombard leveraged her experience in litigation on the forced sterilization of Indigenous women to offer advice to students on how to approach difficult subjects professionally while also providing space to explore their personal reactions to the sometimes-challenging realities of legal education and practice. Over a series of sessions in the fall and winter, she examined Indigenous perspectives on tort law, property law and dispute resolution. Students were invited to explore how Indigenous perspectives can alter our understandings of Canadian legal systems and Indigenous legal orders.

During the January term, French Common Law students joined Professor Suzanne Bouclin to explore the differences between the values underpinning colonial-based models of dispute resolution (and the formal justice system generally) and some of those that guide a range of Indigenous models for addressing conflict.  Students also attended a fireside chat with Chief Arren Sock of the Elsipogtog First Nation and Ms. Lombard who discussed key approaches to the successful resolution of conflicts between First Nations and the Crown.

Throughout this year’s program, students were invited to meet with a broad range of supporters and advisors who helped make the initiative a success. These included members of the Common Law Section’s Indigenous Law Students Governance; Common Law’s Specialist in Indigenous Programs, Tasha Simon; Indigenous Knowledge Holder for the Common Law Section, Gilbert Whiteduck; Judge of the Federal Court of Canada and member of the Poundmaker Cree Nation, Justice Paul Favel; Elder Jeannie Okalik, and her helper Juliet Kotierk; and local members of the Bar, including leadership from the County of Carleton Law Association and the Ontario Bar Association. This community of allies helped reinforce the idea that the knowledge the students gained throughout the program can have a real impact, even after they leave law school.

Informed by the success of this year’s program, the teachings that Common Law students experienced in 2023-2024 will form the basis for a full course on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Indigenous People and the law, which will become a mandatory part of the first-year curriculum beginning in 2025.

As this year’s program ended, students were encouraged to dig even deeper into what they learned and to pass along the knowledge and the tools they gained. The Common Law Section looks forward to witnessing their efforts as they continue through law school and beyond.