Decolonizing Legal Learning:  Moving forward on Call to Action 28 at the Common Law Section 

Closed captions available in English and French.

In 2015 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report with 94 calls to action, and one of those was specifically aimed at law schools, Call to Action 28, which said that law schools should have mandatory courses in relation to substantive knowledge about residential schools, Crown-Indigenous relations, Canadian aboriginal law, Indigenous laws and legal orders, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It also said we needed to help our students with some skills: anti-racism training, anti-discrimination and other skills that would help them interact with Indigenous legal principles, but also with Indigenous people within their legal practice in the future.  

There’s been many decades where individuals have claimed that they’re interested in topics, they’re interested in making things change, but they don’t quite take it on themselves. We need to think that we’re part of the problem solving and being part of the problem solving for these subjects that have been forgotten about for so long means we’re probably going to solve problems a little bit differently.   

So what we’ve done is to base our model on the Seven Sacred Teachings, and to approach for example, in the first year the teachings of truth, and of courage, and of love, to teach about the TRC, about the history of litigation and Canadian aboriginal law, as well as teaching Indigenous laws and legal orders to our first-year students.  

I think one of the things we’re starting with is to really start thinking about how fundamentally and historically legal education has been in the past working to exclude Indigenous voice, Indigenous laws, the influence of Indigenous peoples on law in general and the side effects of that. 

These modules that we’re teaching is a small part of a much larger document and plan called the Pathways Plan. And the Pathways Plan is an ambitious project of decolonization and reconciliation here at the Faculty that includes teaching components, but also includes community building; it includes teaching and learning for professors; it includes supporting our Indigenous faculty and staff and our students especially. 

Students are learning about the history of Crown-Indigenous relations in Canada and the impact of the legal system on Indigenous peoples throughout history; impact on identity, use of land, sense of belonging, exercise of rights relating to treaties and aboriginal rights, for example, hunting and fishing rights, as well as some of the challenges that Indigenous people have had in making claims through the legal system to advocate for their own rights. 

The Seven-pointed Star is the framework for this course. It builds on the Seven Sacred Teachings that are Anishinaabe, that are common to lot of different Anishinaabe nations and are used as a learning and teaching framework. They call on these teachings to show love and humility and respect, and all the things that create a good life, or what is referred to in Anishinaabemowin as Minobimaadiziwin. 

So that’s the framework that students will be employing and what we’re going to ask them to do is to reflect on each of those teachings, learn them, reflect on how they’re absent from parts of their other legal learning, how they’re integrated in other parts of their legal learning, in the common law for example, and then to think about how they can act on those teachings holistically throughout their legal learning experience at the faculty, and then to carry that on into their legal practice into the future.  

I really hope the students leave with a sense that they have the basic tools, and curiosity to start on a lifelong learning journey. Some folks have come with lots of experience around the TRC, Indigenous-Crown relations, Indigenous law, and others this is just the start of their learning and so I hope that between the three courses they’ll be able to see that they know how to find Indigenous law, that they know how to ask important questions about the implementation of the TRC in the places that they going to work as lawyers and advocates.  

They have a role as lawyers to be actively engaged in reconciliation going forward, so they as future legal practitioners, have this responsibility to address the legacy of harm and to plan for a reconciliation future.  

One of the things that are we learn in the final report is how often the word “justice” is mentioned. The role that lawyers have in implementing how justice is understood is, is one of the ways that as a faculty on a university campus we’ve chosen to step up, and we’ve chosen to help other people step up. So not only does the repetition of the concept of justice mean a lot to us, as it should, but that idea of helping others who are a little bit scared about what to do next or who need to find out how to get exposed to topics to help them understand Canadian history and Indigenous people’s history better. We’ve decided to take that on already. 

Students that are here at the Faculty of Law will be engaging with Indigenous people in their legal practice, and any dimension of professional interaction that they have in the future, they’ll have to give consideration and thought to the role of law in colonization, and the role of law in decolonization, and to start that learning in first-year, to carry it through is very important to our Faculty and part of our commitment to reconciliation in the long term. 

In 2007, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established to document the experiences of those affected by the terrible legacy of Canada’s residential schools system. In an effort to engage and educate the Canadian public the TRC released its final report in 2015 with 94 “calls to action” – recommendations designed to facilitate reconciliation between Canadians and Indigenous Peoples. 

Among the calls to action is a specific recommendation for law schools – Call to Action 28 – which urges Canada’s faculties of law to provide students with a course on Indigenous people and the law. Law schools are asked to cover the history and impact of the residential schools system, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the history of Indigenous rights and treaties, Indigenous law and legal traditions, and Indigenous-Crown relations. Call to Action 28 also calls for skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights and anti-racism. 

Professors Aimée Craft, Signa Daum Shanks and Angela Cameron – who are engaging with students in the English Common Law Program – explain how the Common Law Section at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law has chosen to respond to Call to Action 28, recognizing the unique role that lawyers have to play in meaningful reconciliation. They explore how the Common Law Section is choosing to be part of the problem-solving in a variety of ways. 

The Common Law Section’s efforts to implement this new part of the curriculum brought mandatory course modules to all first-year students in 2023. Choosing to connect students directly with the unceded Anishinaabe-Algonquin territory on which the University of Ottawa is built, the instructors chose to base their modules around the Seven Sacred Teachings, common to many Anishinaabe nations. Using this framework, the instructors approached their lessons through understandings of truth, courage, and love, encouraging students to show humility and respect – attitudes that can lead to what is known in Anishinaabe language as minobimaadiziwin, or a good life. 

The Program in French

Professors Aimée Craft and Anne Levesque present the Common Law Section Program in French (English closed-captions are available) 

Professors Aimée Craft and Anne Levesque – who are engaging with students in the French Common Law Program – explore how all Canadians have a role to play in reconciliation. They describe how the first cohort of students not only explored the history and effects of Canada’s colonial past in the classroom, but were given the opportunity to visit sites around Ottawa to gain new perspectives on what these spaces mean in the context of Canada’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples. 

As future lawyers, today’s law students have a distinct responsibility to address the legacy of harm caused towards Indigenous Peoples by Canada’s legal system, and to plan for the future of reconciliation. Through these lessons, students are learning how to recognize Indigenous law, how to ask important questions about the implementation of the TRC’s recommendations, and how to do important legal research and writing around Indigenous-Crown relations. Ultimately, these teachings provide students with a new appreciation for how the word “justice” can be understood. 

References and useful links
About the faculty members

Stay informed of our latest news and publications