Sunday, March 28, 2010

UVic’s Proposed Bachelor of Indigenous Laws

The Faculty of Law at the University of Victoria (British Columbia) has been developing proposals for a Bachelor of Indigenous Laws.  A draft proposal paper was circulated recently which sets out the thinking behind this program and the considerable work that has gone into its development.  As stated in the draft proposal paper, the basic idea is as follows:

The program will teach Indigenous legal orders and the common law in parallel so that, at the end of four years, students attain professional degrees in both.  The program will work between the two sets of traditions, comparing them, using one to illuminate the other, exploring points of connection and possible relationship.  The program will explore the rich content and processes of Indigenous traditions, teaching them in collaboration with the communities themselves.

So, at the end of a four year program of study, students would graduate with two professional law degrees an LLB (in the common law traditions) and a BIL (Bachelor of Indigenous Laws).

I thought it might be useful to point to some of the key aspects of this very exciting project.

The draft proposal paper identifies four reasons why such a program is needed.  First, the paper notes that while many courts and legislatures have started to recognize the importance of Indigenous legal orders, engagement with Indigenous law is ad hoc and sporadic and, therefore, “those arguing for Indigenous norms carry a heavy burden, forced to fashion solutions from first principles in contexts that lack developed engagement with Indigenous orders.  Second, the paper notes the powers of self-government that Indigenous peoples exercise and the “clear trend towards dismantling paternalistic institutions, placing those institutions under Indigenous control” and the need for understanding of Indigenous forms of social ordering in the design and operation of governance structures.  Thirdly, the paper suggests there is a need for such a program to support the development of Indigenous solutions to the social and economic disadvantage faced by many Indigenous peoples.  The final reason that this program is needed that is noted in the draft proposal is the need to develop models for engagement across Indigenous and non-Indigenous legal traditions and structure the interface between them to achieve more fruitful and productive relationships.

One of the most impressive things about the proposal is that is draws on the long experience that the University of Victoria has in relation to Indigenous legal education.  The program builds on the expertise of the law school’s faculty members in relation to Indigenous legal issues and the emphasis on the provision of legal education to Indigenous students, but also the experience the university has gained through the Akitsiraq law school (which delivered a law degree to a single cohort of students in the Inuit territory of Nunavut - information about a second Akitsiraq program, to be offered by the University of Ottawa and the Akitsiraq Law School Society, can be found here), two intensive summer programs in Indigenous legal traditions, and community relationships built through initiatives such as the annual Aboriginal Awareness Camp and the Ethnohistory Field School run by the university’s Department of History in collaboration with the Sto:lo people.

There are also several important aspects of the structure of the proposed program that should be noted.  Several courses within the program will be taught “trans-systemically.” This is an approach which is used in teaching common law and civil law at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.  The draft proposal paper explains the basic idea of teaching a course trans-systemically:

the subject matter of that course (e.g. Constitutional Law, Contract Law, Family Law, the law of Business Associations) will be taught across two traditions simultaneously, so that students will tack back and forth between them, comparing them, each illuminating the other.

One other extremely important aspect of the proposed program is the field school component.  Students in the program will participate in two field schools, “situated within the legal orders studied in their trans-systemic courses”, during the final two years of their degree.  The idea of the field schools is that they will combine “set instruction with experiential learning, including work of value to each community”.  During these field schools, some students will work with lawyers who serve Indigenous communities, some will work with elders (as the traditional keepers of the law), assisting with matters such as the development of appropriate legal structures, the operation of tribal courts, or other relevant projects. The experience gained through the field school will be shared with the community through various round-tables and community forums.

I think this is shaping up to be a very exciting program.