Indigenous law degree, the first of its kind in the world
At the University of Victoria this year, 26 law students began a four-year program from which, with dedication and hard work, they’ll graduate with two professional degrees, in Canadian Common Law (Juris Doctor or JD) and Indigenous Legal Orders (Juris Indigenarum Doctor or JID).
The program answers the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action number 50, which calls for governments “to fund institutes for the development, use and understanding of Indigenous law, and to create access to justice in accordance with Indigenous peoples’ societies,” says legal scholar and professor Val Napoleon, a co-founder of the program. For Canada as a whole, she adds, “establishing respectful relationships requires acknowledging Indigenous laws and traditions.”
Announcing the program’s launch, UVic president Jamie Cassels also described its aim: “Graduates of this program will help lead the way towards our country’s future.”
Prof. Napoleon’s ground-breaking work, along with that of program co-founder and international Indigenous law scholar Prof. John Borrows, informed the deliberations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and has been instrumental in shaping the new program.
“This is about rebuilding Indigenous law by Indigenous communities, and about the importance of doing so for community safety, governance and dispute resolution,” says Prof. Napoleon, the director of the university’s Indigenous Law Research Unit. “It puts an end to the stereotypical trope that Indigenous societies were unlawful before colonization; while that law hasn’t gone anywhere, it has been undermined and is now being rebuilt to deal with contemporary issues and problems.”
The program equips students for valuable, rewarding careers, helping to build enduring political and legal relationships essential to issues of social importance, including environmental management, child welfare and human rights. “There is a huge scope of possibility,” says Prof. Napoleon.
The joint degrees will ensure that the work these future lawyers do connects more deeply with the values, ideas and cultural norms that flow from Indigenous peoples and their law, says Prof. Borrows. “By not just cutting and pasting from federal or provincial precedents, they’ll be able to develop innovations that more squarely meet the needs of the communities they represent, and that are more persuasive.”
He believes that the program will also make these students better lawyers in other ways. “The common law is often taught as if it is a universal, natural, all-time and all-place application; students may not recognize the choices available in arriving at conclusions,” he explains. “But by seeing the common law in a comparative light, our students will be sensitized to how they can use their energy, creativity and professional skills to understand the law in its scope and context.”
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