A novel approach to law

Tracey Lindberg, wearing a red shirt, black glasses and silver earrings, faces the camera, smiling.

“We have finite time on this planet and if you’re able to move people’s hearts and heads at the same time, that’s the most important thing you can do.”

 – Tracey Lindberg

By Kelly Haggart

Tracey Lindberg incubated Birdie for almost two decades before the book’s release last year. But once hatched, her first novel quickly flew off the shelf and onto the shortlist of CBC Radio’s Canada Reads competition.

The theme of this year’s battle of the books – “starting over” – fits both the compelling story Lindberg tells in Birdie and events in her own life. After 20 years at Athabasca University in Edmonton, where she was an associate professor and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Traditional Knowledge, Legal Orders and Laws, Lindberg is moving to Ottawa to join the Faculty of Law this fall.

For more than a decade, she has taught in the Faculty’s January Term, the mini-session in which students focus intensively on one course for three weeks. Now, she will return to her alma mater full-time.

“One of the 94 calls to action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) refers to indigenizing the academy,” she says. “The University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law is incredibly motivated to address this in a meaningful way, and I want to be part of that.

“It will also mean being in Ottawa during the important political discussion around building a new ‘nation-to-nation relationship’. I hope that the hopes around that are valid, and great things come of it.”

After law degrees from the University of Saskatchewan and Harvard University, Lindberg earned her doctorate at uOttawa, winning the 2007 Governor General’s Gold Medal for her dissertation, Critical Indigenous Legal Theory. “Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada are separated by an enormous knowledge gap,” she wrote, referring to different knowledge bases and ways of knowing. She has worked ever since to close that divide.

A path to reconciliation

For the moment, Lindberg is busy accompanying Birdie on an astonishing journey. Social entrepreneur Bruce Poon Tip, founder of sustainable travel company G Adventures, championed the book in the Mar 21-24 Canada Reads debates. And while Lawrence Hill’s The Illegal won the competition, Birdie will continue to soar thanks to Poon Tip’s pledge to donate 10,000 copies to high schools across the country.

“For all of us who care about reconciliation, and frankly we all should, this book opens that path,” Poon Tip said in his “ opening argument. ” Lindberg, who is “third-generation urban,” hails from the As’in’i’wa’chi Ni'yaw Nation (also known as Kelly Lake Cree Nation) straddling the northern Alberta-B.C. border. In early March, she took Poon Tip to visit her traditional territory and meet community elders.

Birdie was published in late May 2015, a week before the TRC released the summary of its final report on Canada’s horrific residential school system. Lindberg wasn’t entirely comfortable with the coincidental timing of her book’s appearance, wanting none of the attention to shift from the TRC’s landmark report.

“But a change in the Canadian conversation couldn’t be a better time to be somebody who wants to challenge the way that we talk about things,” Lindberg says. “Everybody has one good story in them, and what happened with my one good story is that it came out at a time when people were looking for places to expand their thinking.”

Healing journey

Birdie traces the healing journey taken by a young Cree woman, Bernice Meetoos, as she processes the family dysfunction and sexual assault she had to flee to build a better life. Ultimately, the message is hopeful as the resilient Bernice reconciles with her hard past, creates a new family and reinvents herself in the healthiest way she can.

In a fascinating talk at uOttawa in February, Lindberg gave an overview of the appealing relationship-based Cree legal framework that underpins the novel, where a law-abiding life means being a good relative. This includes treating your human family (however broadly defined) with respect, kindness, gentleness and humility. It also obliges caring for the land and “for our relatives who have wings and four legs.”

Lindberg wrote Birdie to work through painful issues in her own life and in the troubled relationship between Canada’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

“What does citizenship look like, what does family look like, when the colonial bomb goes off in your own neighbourhood?” she says. “This is why I wrote the book – I wanted to figure it out.”

“It didn’t take me 19 years to write it, but creating Birdie was a process, not a goal,” she says. For years, cramming at law school or preparing for the bar exam, her mind would wander. She began to write “snippets” of dialogue or events, throwing them into a drawer. Years later, she realized she was writing about one central character, and wove the snippets together into Birdie.

Four people, wearing winter jackets and ear-protecting headphones with microphones, sit in a row against the inside wall of a small plane.
From right: Bruce Poon Tip snaps a photo of himself with Tracey Lindberg, Margaret Gladue, a Kelly Lake Cree Nation (KLCN) head of family, and KLCN Chief Cliff Calliou as they fly to Kelly Lake in March 2016. Photo: Bruce Poon Tip.

“On-ramps” to understanding

Lindberg calls her novel a “heart piece.” As a law professor, she also writes the formal, footnoted papers and books she describes as “head pieces.” Law is full of stories, and she wants to expand the way those are told and provide different “on-ramps” for people to access them.

“My new presentation style allows me to have a broader and, I think, more moving conversation with people,” she says. “We have finite time on this planet and if you’re able to move people’s hearts and heads at the same time, that’s the most important thing you can do.”

Lindberg will teach a course in the fall that will see students signing non-disclosure agreements and working with Indigenous communities on actual legal problems. In the spring session, she hopes to offer a course that “will look to find the law in books like Birdie.”

Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett recently proposed declaring June Indigenous Book Club Month. Lindberg likes the idea, and encourages Indigenous students to “bring their own stories out of hiding.” They might be as surprised as she has been with the results.

“The reception right now is different than it has ever looked before,” she says. “We are in a time of possibility — be open to it.”

Main photo:
Indigenous legal scholar Tracey Lindberg returns to her alma mater in the fall to join the Faculty of Law. Photo: Stacy Swanson/HarperCollins Canada

Front cover of Tracey Lindberg’s novel, Birdie.
Bruce Poon Tip, Birdie’s champion in the Canada Reads competition, says: “For all of us who care about reconciliation, and frankly we all should, this book opens that path.” Photo: HarperCollins Canada
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