Written by Rebecca Blain
Last semester four students—Rebecca Blain, Matt Hammer, Amelia Crowshoe, and Nafisa Abdul-Razak—attended the World Indigenous Law Conference in Windsor ON, land of the Three Fires Confederacy, and home to the Ojibwa, Odawa, and Potawatomi. We were able to do this with the support of the UofC’s Faculty of Law. We wanted to share some of the ideas that were shared at that conference with the larger student body. We also hope that by sharing what we learned, we will encourage other law students to seek out these types of opportunities. The law school just might help you pay for it if you ask them!
We heard from Indigenous people from all over the world, including New Zealand, Australia, Columbia, the United States, and of course, Canada. A big theme throughout the conference was an exploration of the responsibilities that come from who we are and the roles we inhabit. For example, what are our responsibilities if we are descended from Canadian settlers? What are our responsibilities if we are Indigenous? As settlers, we were challenged to think about how we can recognize the great diversity and plurality of Canadian and national legal systems. Are we aware of this diversity? Why or why not? Do we know the history of the land we call home, both locally and nationally? What treaty land do we live on? Do we understand how we are a part of that treaty? Are we outraged about the clear injustices happening within these systems? Are we willing to write and speak out against our own institutions and hold them accountable for oppression and violence? Do we have some awareness of the violence that law perpetrates on Indigenous people? If we don’t, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves, and speak up.
Do we have some awareness of the violence that law perpetrates on Indigenous people? If we don’t, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves, and speak up.
We heard about a striking example of this violence in the case of an Australian Indigenous man, Cameron Doomadgee (Mulrunji). He was picked up by a white police officer on a charge of public nuisance. At the time of his arrest, Mulrunji was in an uninjured state. Hours later, he died while in police custody of massive internal injuries caused by brutal police beatings. His death was ruled an ‘accident,’ and this ruling sparked massive riots in the Aboriginal community of Palm Island. A disproportionate and heavy-handed response to the riots by the police led to a class action suit that ended with a $30 million payout to 447 claimants, and a formal apology by the federal government to the people of Palm Island. Here, the law was used to perpetuate both injustice, and justice.
As Indigenous people, we were encouraged by the reminders that we are, and always have been, citizens, rights bearers, and legal agents. Being Indigenous is a good thing. A powerful thing. We were also challenged to see the stories, the healing, and the work we do in building our own communities as law, that every decision we make has an impact seven generations from now, and we are sharing our law with others whether we realize it or not. If we want to protect the land, do we know it? Do we know our ceremonies and protocols? Are we pursuing the knowledge that tells us who we are, where we come from, and who our people are? This is a lifelong pursuit.
As law students and future lawyers, we are bridges. And bridges are places that require careful navigation, for bridges are places that bring together, but also divide. What would happen if we understood ourselves as being born to be related? If we saw our peers as our cousins, people we had obligations and responsibilities towards? All of us have important work to do, for, as Val Napoleon reminds us, we engage with law to be our best selves.