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A Week of Indigenous Law and Legal Ethics Teachings

 The series of teachings provided U of T law students with concrete ways to engage with Indigenous law and legal ethics 

University of Toronto Faculty of Law students were excited to welcome back the Indigenous Law and Legal Ethics Teaching Series, running from March 15-19. The teaching series, organized by the Indigenous Initiatives Office (IIO) with support and funding from the Law Foundation of Ontario, sought to explore and engage with Indigneous legal orders which operate across the continent.

While Indigenous laws are diverse, the teaching series highlighted a core set of shared ethical codes which guide Indigenous nations in their relationship with the land, in treaties, and in their engagement with the common and civil law. It was crucial that, in the execution of this teaching series, we encouraged students to not only learn about Indigneous law in the abstract, but to think about the concrete ways in which U of T law students could put Indigenous legal ethics into action as they continue in their legal practices. 

The week began with a presentation by Rayanna Seymour-Hourie, who is an Anishnaabe (Ojibway) lawyer from Lake of the Woods in Treaty #3 territory. Rayanna kicked-off the week by presenting her work in the RELAW (Revitalizing Indigenous Law for Land, Air, and Water) program. Law students had the opportunity to engage with Indigneous legal methods, including learning how to brief traditional stories in order to develop a summary of legal principles contained within a traditional medium like storytelling and ceremony. Rayanna then explained how this method of drawing legal principles from storytelling is put into action for implementing and enforcing Indigenous laws in British Columbia. 

The Faculty then had the privilege of welcoming Elders Dan and Mary Lou Smoke for the second presentation of the week. Elder Dan is a member of the Seneca Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy, and serves as an adjunct professor at Western University. Elder Mary Lou is a member of the Ojibway nation, and is also an adjunct professor at Western University. Students had the privilege of learning about treaties, including the Dish With One Spoon Treaty, as well as the Grandfather Teachings and the Great Law of Peace. 

Next was a presentation from Ira Provost of the Piikani nation and member of the Blackfoot confederacy. Ira’s talk presented a comprehensive overview of Blackfoot socio-legal structures, including the presence of traditional honour societies, the importance of ceremonies such as the Sun Dance, and how Blackfoot nations are using traditional knowledge and ethics to guide land development. Ira also discussed the importance of Elders in reinforcing and protecting the legal and ethical lessons shared in storytelling. 

Our final traditional teacher was Chief R. Stacey Laforme of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. Chief Laforme presented on Treaties, Indigneous Law, and Ethics. Law students had the privilege of listening to Chief Laforme’s personal poetry, which touched on topics such as integrity, generosity of spirit, and humility. Chief Laforme also explained his Nation’s peacekeeping processes, and how he is leading the Mississaugas of the New Credit towards a nation-to-nation relationship with the Canadian state. 

Together, the four speakers represented diverse Indigenous nations, each with its own unique legal code. The speakers also each taught law students ways in which they could engage with Indigenous law more broadly. From Rayanna’s ability to “brief” stories, to Elder Dan and Mary Lou’s engagement with treaties — there were plenty of opportunities to engage with legal techniques and principles which extend beyond any single Indigneous nation. 

It was, and will continue to be, crucial to make space within the law school for Indigenous legal traditions. As noted by our speakers, Indigneous law is an intricate and complex system which shapes the way Indigneous peoples relate to Western legal practices. By learning about Indigenous law, and legal ethics in particular, law students can develop a more complete vision of Canada’s legal landscape, and learn how to respectfully engage with Indigenous nations. 

The Indigenous Law Students Association (ILSA) and the IIO have a number of initiatives which build on the success of the Indigneous Law and Legal Ethics Teaching Series. The ILSA has continued to host events throughout the pandemic, including a solidarity event with Mi’kmaq fishers last semester. Further, students can engage with Indigenous legal traditions throughout the year by staying tuned in to IIO programming. Such programming includes the Teachings on the Bundle with the Faculty of Law’s Elder in Residence, Elder Constance, as well as the Reconciliation Reading Circles. 

Beyond Zoom events, the IIO and ILSA have worked together to produce a podcast, 28: A Call to Action. Law students can access our podcast and learn more about Indigenous Law, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the ways we can collectively engage in reconciliation at the law school

Editor’s Note: Tomas Jirousek is an Indigenous Law and Legal Ethics Research Assistant with the University of Toronto Faculty of Law and was involved in planning the 2021 Indigenous Law and Legal Ethics Teaching Week.

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