Indigenization & Osgoode

On April 15, 2016, Osgoode held a faculty retreat led by Professor Signa Daum Shanks on Indigenization and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission attended by over 50 full-time and adjunct faculty. I want to share some reflections on this work-in-progress. The guiding principles behind our approach to Indigenization and responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action for Law Schools has been to listen – to our students, our staff and faculty, our alumni, and the Indigenous communities around us – with listening comes reflection, and from reflection, change. Nandagikend is an Anishnaabe term I have recently learned that can be translated as “seeks to know it; seeks to learn it” – this captures well what I hope lies in store for Osgoode – and for me…


In the first circle of the retreat, we shared reflections on what we are now doing that we value. For example, the establishment of a new CRC in Indigenous Environmental Governance (cross-appointed to York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies) held by Prof. Deb McGregor, Osgoode’s longstanding Intensive Program in Aboriginal Lands, Resources and Governments and the newly established Anishnaabe Law Camp were cited by nearly everyone as major steps forward.
Ceremonies came up often as well. The smudge and Lakota song at the start of the retreat helped us focus on the work to be done. The inauguration in 2014 of Osgoode’s Honour Ceremony for Indigenous graduates and their families as part of Convocation is an example. This new ceremony coincided with Osgoode awarding Justice Murray Sinclair an Honourary Doctorate for the courage and leadership he demonstrated in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools (TRC). Since 2011, Osgoode has commenced each new academic year with a welcome drumming ceremony, made even more meaningful in 2015 by Kim Murray, Assistant Deputy Attorney General for Aboriginal Justice (and former Osgoode Adjunct Professor) who spoke movingly to the first year class on that day about her experience as Executive Director of the TRC). Finally, Professor Daum Shanks, who joined Osgoode in 2014, launched a new tradition of a Wahkotowin lodge at Osgoode to ensure all are welcome to explore Indigenous approaches in an inclusive space.
Spaces matter too. Ya’Ya Heit’s Hawk and Eagle carvings, commissioned by Osgoode for our 125th Anniversary, have made Osgoode’s central gathering space a reminder of the goals of reconciliation. Alex McKay’s “Treaty Canoe” which was exhibited this academic year in the library signified a call for a new dialogue about the place of Indigenous peoples in Canadian history. York’s Hart House, a historic log cabin located adjacent to Osgoode, is being renovated to take on a new role as a central gathering space of the University’s Indigenous students and scholars.
While Law School and University spaces are important, so too is reaching beyond those spaces. For example, Osgoode’s facilitation of the Government consultations on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Inquiry with two workshops in the Spring of 2016 (one focused on knowledge acquired by other Commissions of Inquiry while the other focused on Indigenous knowledge keepers) demonstrates the role a Law School can play in broader legal issues affecting Indigenous communities. Involving students in these projects (such as those who served as note-takers at the workshops) deepens the benefits of collaboration. Osgoode Professional Development’s National Conferences on Aboriginal Justice Post-Gladue and our support for the Indigenous Bar Association Annual Conference represent other settings in which Osgoode facilitates ongoing conversations about the Justice system and Indigenous communities.
At the retreat, faculty shared reflections on what we believe needs to be improved. MP Romeo Saganash and Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Harry LaForme spoke about the importance of their legal education as a “tool” to achieve the recognition of the rights of Indigenous peoples but not as a welcoming or inclusive community. For too many Indigenous students, law school remains an alienating and undermining experience.

With these experiences in mind, the TRC Call to Action urges Law Schools to:
[R]equire all law students to take a course in Aboriginal people and the law, which includes the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal–Crown relations. This will require skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and antiracism.

While Osgoode already includes some aspects of this Call to Action in required courses on State and Citizen, Property and Ethical Lawyering in a Global Community, other aspects remain to be integrated into a program of study that all Osgoode students will experience. The process of creating this curriculum includes not just the subject areas referred to by the TRC but incorporating the Indigenous experience throughout the Law School curriculum. To that end, at the retreat, we considered the recent Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision in the First Nations Family and Caring Society and how this case could be approached in Administrative Law, Family Law, Evidence Law, Constitutional Law, Law & Discrimination, Indigenous Peoples and the Law, and many more classes. Osgoode’s approach to a “course” in Aboriginal people and the law may well take place in many rather than one Law School class, and responses to the TRC Calls to Action as a whole are taking place in more than one Faculty at the University (Osgoode’s efforts also form part of a broader Indigenous Strategy at York University).

The final circle of the day, facilitated deftly by Lakehead University Vice-Provost for Aboriginal Initiatives Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, featured thoughtful input from many Osgoode faculty. A number noted the importance of recognizing what we do not know, and what remains to be done, and to see all of our efforts both individually and institutionally as works in progress – a microcosm, in that sense, of reconciliation more broadly.

As the circle came to its close, Jeffery Hewitt (who has been a Visiting Professor and Visiting Scholar at Osgoode) observed that Indigenization will not just be about programs, ceremonies and spaces but ultimately must reflect broader aspirations of reciprocity and trust with Indigenous peoples. The retreat reiterated for me (and, I believe, for others at Osgoode), that responding to the TRC is not a journey to an end point (e.g. a new course) but rather a catalyst for greater engagement, dialogue, and action. While we need to work together to progress as an academic and professional community, each of us also must take a personal journey – and there is so much left to learn and do!