Anishinaabe Law Camp

At the opening circle of the 2017 Osgoode Anishinaabe Law Camp in Neyaashiinigmiing (Cape Croker on the Bruce Peninsula), our task was to present an Anishinaabe word we had chosen in advance – any to explain why we chose it. Examples ranged from gaaskibagaasin (rustling leaves) to esiban (raccoon) and from nanda-gikendan (to seek to learn) to zaag’idwin (to show loving-kindness and compassion). I chose agawaateshin (he/she is in the shade). Since I was a child, seeking shade on a hot, sunny day captures for me a place of comfort, and a way we can gain perspective on what is around us. This was apropos the weekend we chose for the Camp, with not a cloud in the sky and temperatures soaring to near 30 degrees.

For some in the community, just hearing the language spoken in this way, and the curiosity, engagement and respect this exercise reflected, represented an important connection. It was especially meaningful for those old enough to remember when Indigenous languages and ceremonies were actively suppressed by Residential Schools and Indian Agents. Like Camp itself, this experience demonstrated how law can be shaped by words, and why it always matters where those words come from, and whose way of seeing the world those words reflect.

One of the goals of the Camp was to see Anishinaabe Law as a living and growing body of legal norms, not simply as a set of ancient customs and traditions. We learned Anishinaabe legal perspectives through stories and their interpretations from University of Victoria Law Professor John Borrows, his daughter and newly minted B.C. based lawyer Lindsay Borrows, University of Victoria Professor Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark and Professor Karen Drake, who joined Osgoode just this July. Weaving together story-telling and legal analysis, with discussion, and sharing experiences, demonstrated the richness of an oral legal tradition.

The stories our teachers introduced speak of individual and community responsibilities, of the value of humility and the potential of each person to affect and transform their world and of the Anishinaabe peoples’ cosmology, language and history. We also had opportunities to learn from other knowledge keepers in the community, who guided us through Moon and Medicine Wheel teachings, the significance of the land, water, plants, medicines and wildlife around us, and the protocols involved in keeping the fire and the sweat lodge.

Over the four days of Camp, we ate together, explored the territory together and got to know the community and each other. While every participant reacts to this immersive experience in different ways, I was struck by our students’ openness – to one another, to our hosts and teachers, and to the legal methodology we were exploring.

The Anishinaabe Law Camp could not have come to be without the vision of John Borrows (who also has been a key force in the development of Canada’s first JID degree program in Indigenous law at the University of Victoria), or without the passion of Professor Andrée Boisselle who developed the Osgoode program, now in its 4th year – since its launch, the law faculties at the University of Toronto, McGill and Windsor all have adapted the model for their own students. At Osgoode, a number of faculty members have joined Andrée in various coordinating roles for the Camp, notably Professor Dayna Scott, who have ensured the Camp’s growth and reach, and Osgoode staff member Mary Barbieri provides logistical support for the Camp that goes far above and beyond the call. Demand for the Camp at Osgoode this year far outpaced the number of available spots, so for the first time, a second Camp will be offered by the Chippewas of Rama First Nation (thanks to Professor Jeffery Hewitt, an Osgoode graduate currently on faculty at the University of Windsor).


When people ask me what we can do to advance the cause of Reconciliation, I often return to the words of former Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner and Justice (now Senator) Murray Sinclair. In his remarks on the occasion of receiving an honorary doctorate at Osgoode’s 2015 Convocation, Sinclair reminded us that Reconciliation is both an individual and shared process. It must take Indigenous communities own experience and needs as its point of departure but is a burden that cannot be borne by Indigenous communities alone – just as it must be both a personal journey inside ourselves and one which informs how we act to and with one another.

The Anishinaabe Law Camp points towards one path on the journey to Reconciliation – it begins with sharing knowledge and experience, opens possibilities for dialogue and partnership, and aspires to living in harmony with each other and the environments around us. I am grateful for the opportunity to have shared in this year’s Camp, and hope exposure to Indigenous legal knowledge becomes an experience shared by all law students (at Osgoode and elsewhere).