Three years after welcoming the first students to the Indigenous law degree at the University of Victoria, Val Napoleon says Indigenous law is being purposefully rebuilt and gradually recognized in Canada.
“We don’t have to argue that Indigenous people have law anymore,” she said. “Some lower court judges are already drawing on Indigenous law principles as sources of reasoning, not as evidence, but as a principled way to think through cases.”
A huge contributor to the shift has come from the Indigenous Laws Research Unit, co-founded by Napoleon almost 10 years ago, long before she thought an Indigenous law degree could be possible. The research unit works directly with Indigenous communities to articulate and modernize their laws.
Ten years ago there was a fear about Indigenous law. People didn’t understand that it has the same goals as Canadian law — safety, fairness, dignity, inclusion, she said. “It was too scary. It was a black hole.”
But as the research unit has produced reports on Sepwepemc citizenship, Coast Salish child and caregiver nurturance law, water laws, Tsimshian inter-nation co-operation and dispute resolution, Anishinaabe community governance and more, the non-Indigenous judiciary has been able to see that, Indigenous law is just law.
Then came the joint law degree in 2018, the first of its kind in the world. Students earn a full Canadian law degree, juris doctor, and an Indigenous law degree, juris indigenarium doctor — indigenarium is a tongue-in-cheek word that plays on the judiciary’s love of Latin words — over four years. Most law degrees take three years.
For each core course — property, torts, contracts, etc. — is taught with Canadian common law and Indigenous law side by side. For example, Napoleon teaches Gitksan and Canadian land and property law in one double course. Anishinaabic constitutional law, Cree criminal law, Tsilhqot’in contracts and Coast Salish torts are each learned beside their Canadian counterparts.
Now the first cohort of students are embedded in field school, a year away from crossing the stage, and they’re already being snapped up by law firms and booked by their communities back home.
“We can’t keep up with demand,” Napoleon said about the hunger from communities wanting to articulate their law into practice, and from the judiciary who need training and knowledge and lawyers. The research unit also does a lot of workshops with lawyers, government workers and other organizations.
One thing she and her colleagues across the country are determined to do is ensuring that Indigenous law is scrutinized to make sure it meets the highest standards of law. That often means making sure all people are represented in the law, and that it upholds the dignity of all people.
“When people feel that they don’t matter to the legal institution of their world, when they don’t believe they are rights holders, that their legal issues don’t matter, that’s when you have problems. Because what are people going to do when they don’t matter?” she asks.
“We have to be able to say our laws uphold human dignity because if it doesn’t our society will fragment over time.”