Canada’s first PhD in law delivered partly in beadwork

Posted on Friday, May 28, 2021

Portrait of Danielle Lussier.

“Beads have carried law since time immemorial… when I say that, people often respond ‘Oh, lady, no! I don’t know what you’re talking about,’” Danielle Lussier says, smiling broadly.

Lussier is a Red River Métis from Treaty 1 territory in Manitoba and the homeland of the Métis nation. She relocated to the National Capital Region, unceded Algonquin territory, in 2002 to study law at uOttawa. This June, she will graduate with a PhD, having delivered her thesis in print — and beadwork.

Lussier’s PhD dissertation examines how beadwork is used as a tool for legal knowledge production and mobilization, and also as classroom-based pedagogy. “I write, and then I bead what I’ve written,” she says. “When people look at the beadwork and interact with it, it allows them to open up to both mind knowledge and heart knowledge, which are used together to get them thinking about law in a different way.”

“Wampum belts, which were woven with beads made of quahog clam shells, were used in treaties such as the one negotiated in 1613 between the Haudenosaunee (the Six Nations) and the Dutch government,” explains Dr. Lussier. “Records show that the settlers knew exactly what the belts meant, but, over time, these things have been devalued. Part of my research explores that.”

Interestingly, her doctoral thesis in law is the first in Canadian history to include a piece of beadwork.

“It was not an easy road,” says Lussier. “My thesis adviser convinced everyone who needed convincing that beadwork was law and that it was valid. The concept alone is a long walk for a lot of people.

Piece of beadwork.

In addition to being director of Indigenous and community engagement at uOttawa’s Faculty of Law, Dr. Lussier became, in 2018, the faculty’s inaugural Indigenous learner advocate, a position created in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) calls to action. The commission said that law schools must play an important role in reconciliation because of their long history of sustaining systems of colonization and oppression.

A new legal studies paradigm: ‘Law with heart’

This past winter, Lussier’s research found its way into the classroom. In a course called Beadwork and the Law, offered as an upper year seminar, she introduced students to a very different paradigm of law education.

By creating safer spaces for conversations about Indigenous law, Dr. Lussier helped people wrap their minds around the concept of how beading and beadwork is interwoven into law.

“To my learners, I would often say that it’s not really about the beads, it’s about building relationships,” she says.

She even came up with a slogan to define her work: “Law with heart.

“It’s about legal education that might look a little different, and that might prepare people to go out into the world and practise law with humanity. I know I’m not everybody’s flavour of Kool Aid, but some people dig it.”

Danielle Lussier creating a piece of beadwork.

Working for future generations

After moving to the region, Lussier earned a bachelor’s in civil law, another in common law, and a master’s in law with a specialization in women’s studies by 2008, in just six years.

The PhD was a much longer road, though. She had started her career during the 2009 economic downturn. Whether it was working at the Federal Court, the Supreme Court, the Canadian Bar Association or the Library of Parliament, Lussier took advantage of every opportunity.

Between 2012 and 2015, she and her husband also welcomed three children into their lives. The older two were still babies when she decided to start her PhD, and the third joined the family during her first year of study. She would bring all three to class.

“In the spring of 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, I had to make a decision about my PhD. I either had to commit to it or withdraw. But I figured that you don’t drag newborns to campus and nurse them in class to then walk away.”

The writing began in June 2020 and nine months later, she defended her thesis.

“I am very driven by service to my kids and to my learners,” she says. “I am ensuring that the road will be a bit easier for my children, for my future grandchildren and also for my learners. It is truly a calling for me.”

Danielle Lussier with her three kids.


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