What I Have Learned about Indigenizing Legal Education During my Summer Internship

Guest Blog By Peter Hillson

Peter Hillson is a student at Osgoode Hall Law School in the JD/Master of Environmental Studies program. This summer he worked with Sustainability Network as part of his Osgoode Summer Internship Program. Peter is passionate about sustainability, environmental policy, and climate justice.

In a time when many in-person activities have necessarily been reconfigured to occur online, education is no exception. As a legal intern working to engage with ENGOs on the topic of Indigenous legal traditions and their intersection with Canadian law (as part of a joint CELA and Sustainability Network project), this is something that I had to grapple with throughout my work this summer.

How do you facilitate learning effectively and thoughtfully when your audience is physically far away and viewing long after your original presentation?

Furthermore, while online learning holds great potential to expand the reach and enhance the accessibility of education, use of these technologies risks skewing Indigenous methods of teaching and learning.

In this blog post I will share some of the theories and techniques I encountered, as well my own reflections.

Embracing Complexity is Key

One of the biggest questions I faced was whether Indigenous law can and should be taught outside of Indigenous communities.

As a settler myself, I wanted to be careful that my work was neither damaging nor tokenizing. A particularly important concern is that the ongoing domination of Canadian law makes it difficult to appreciate Indigenous legal systems in all of their complexity [1]. A response to this concern, though it may be challenging, is that failing to teach Indigenous law outside of Indigenous communities “makes it appear as though the common law and civil law are the only two legal traditions operative throughout the land.”[2] This clearly illustrates that we should do our best to engage with Indigenous legal traditions. However, those of us hoping to learn from Indigenous legal traditions must not fall into the trap of romanticizing or over-simplifying.

It is one thing to say that teaching and learning about Indigenous legal traditions must be sensitive to the complexities of Indigenous legal systems, and quite another thing to bring that goal into practice. Throughout the summer I encountered many methods of achieving this goal, including teaching through storytelling, Talk Story, and Land-Based Learning. Though doing justice to each of these approaches would take more space than a blog post allows – and I do encourage you to read more – all methods include an encouragement to step back from our impulsive views, and to focus on connections and relationships as a core component of what makes law and communities.

While this type of thinking is often unfamiliar or difficult, the insight it provides also helps us to understand the educational force in “recognizing and honouring the abilities and gifts of Aboriginal peoples.”[3] Each of these methods draws upon Indigenous traditions and practices to help us engage more deeply with Indigenous law today.

Indigenizing Online Education Requires Thought and Care

While this gave me a lot to think about in the realm of teaching and learning Indigenous law, it still left me wondering how Indigenous law might be taught and discussed in an online format. This is an especially important consideration because, as many of us have likely experienced over the past few months, online video chats or pre-recorded presentations often don’t provide the same connection or sense of place that an in-person meeting or gathering would.

I encountered a potential framework for approaching this difficulty in the concept of ‘Ethical Space’, originally formulated by Willie Ermine. To put it briefly, ethical space is a neutral space with agreed upon rules, in which cultures can meet on equal footing, with a mutual understanding of the validity and legitimacy of their perspectives, traditions, and values.

In this type of space, as Willie Ermine puts it, “since there is no God’s eye view to be claimed by any society of people, …the space offers a venue…where human-to-human dialogue can occur.”[4] As it necessitates sustained engagement and effort from participants in ways that potentially ‘shortens’ the distance between them, I believe that creating ethical space in the online learning community is a good first step to facilitating discussion and exploration, rather than domination.

Ethical Space and Indigenization are Continual Processes

How might we bring ethical space into our classrooms and meetings? This is a tough question that I continue to struggle with. Although there may not be a definitive answer, I think continuing to engage in that struggle is part of what facilitates ethical space. The methods discussed above often challenge us to focus on connections and relations each time we approach them. Thus, practices as diverse as hosting a talking circle before meeting, incorporating an Indigenous language, bringing learning outside, or teaching through storytelling – among many others – can all be part of Indigenizing legal education and creating ethical space.

The creation of ethical space is not in doing each of these things, but in the intention to create a space where cultures can meet without domination, and Indigenization can occur.

As I continue my legal education, I will strive to more deliberately connect the cases and principles I learn, to stories about the relationships and connections those cases and principles have created or damaged. Especially when thinking about the impact Canadian law has had on Indigenous peoples, I expect this personal commitment will often be hard and make me uncomfortable. I’m also sure that embracing the discomfort will be an important part of my learning.

[1] Val Napoleon and Hadley Freidland, “Indigenous Legal Traditions: Roots to Renaissance” in Markus Dubber and Tatjana Hornle, The Oxford Handbook of Criminal Law, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
[2] John Borrows, “Heroes, Tricksters, Monsters, and Caretakers: Indigenous Law and Legal Education” (2016) 61:4 McGill LJ 795 at 807.
[3] Marie Battiste, Lynne Bell & L.N. Findlay, “Decolonizing Education in Canadian Universities: An Interdisciplinary, 4 International Research Project” (2002) 26:2 Canadian Journal of Native Education 82 at 83.
[4] Willie Ermine, “The Ethical Space of Engagement” (2007) 6:1 Indigenous Law Journal 193 at 202.