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Windsor law’s OK boomer renovation | David Israelson

Tuesday, March 16, 2021 @ 10:20 AM | By David Israelson

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David Israelson %>
David Israelson
If buildings could talk, the University of Windsor’s Ron W. Ianni law school building might say this about its renovation: OK boomer.

Windsor law’s building is getting an overhaul that’s designed to kick the structure, opened in 1970, into the current millennium. The $30-million-plus project, which will take two years, aims to reflect the school’s philosophy of “law as a social process.”

Construction started at the end of 2020 to turn the school away from the bulky, brutalist style that was popular at universities in the baby boom days.

The new design aims to pay heed to ideas that were barely recognized 50 years ago, such as Indigenous law and accommodation for disabilities.

“It is a good building but it is outdated. There are issues but there are also opportunities,” said the new project’s architect, Duncan Higgins of Diamond Schmitt Architects of Toronto.

Different kind of school

Windsor law’s dean Christopher Waters agrees. “The building served us well for a half-century. It reflected how we want to be a different kind of law school, and we don’t want to change that. We want it to be more modern, more welcoming and more accessible,” he said.

A few things have changed in Canadian law since Windsor law’s building was opened in 1970, when the other Trudeau was prime minister. The 1982 Constitution, for example. As well, a whole slew of updated and still-evolving case law on Indigenous issues. Also, environmental law, steps toward gender equality and the idea that it might be better to include a wheelchair ramp in buildings rather than cigarette machines and ashtrays.  

The way law students learn and lawyers work is different now too. In the 1970s, law students — mostly male — would pore over casebooks in the library, not databases.

The timing is opportune for an overhaul because the building, which normally serves 720 students, sent everyone home to learn remotely during COVID-19. They’re due to return to a temporary site on campus whenever lockdowns are eased, until the renovation is finished in two years.

New era, new design

Dean Waters and architect Higgins agree that what’s even more important than the physical structure is what’s in the school’s academic bones. To that end, Higgins says he has been consulting extensively with the school’s faculty, students and Windsor law’s Indigenous Elder in Residence, Myrna Kicknosway. She advises the school on Indigenous culture, including its place in Canadian law.

Higgins has also been working with associate dean Laverne Jacobs, director of the school’s Law, Disability and Social Change Project. The project conducts research into legal and policy issues to make society more inclusive and empower people with disabilities.

To this end, for example, one of the 1970s features known as the “lower agora” is being redesigned. It was a sunken pit built to be a gathering place, but this required a flight of steps and eventually, yellow warning tape along the steps. The new agora will be on a level floor.

The new design adds windows and reconfigures classrooms to let students collaborate, more consistent with the way lawyers actually work nowadays. The law library is also being renovated, but it will still provide a quiet place to study, concentrate and do group work

Recognizing legal changes

Especially significant is how the structure is being reimagined to recognize a huge and still emerging cultural shift in Canadian law, and Canadian society — reconciliation and a new relationship with Indigenous people. Indigenous law is a key component of the school’s program and it’s increasingly important to Canadian jurisprudence in the 21st century.

The school launched an Indigenous Legal Orders Institute in 2019 to help build knowledge and understanding about how both federal and provincial legislation and court rulings now incorporate Indigenous law and principles. A course in Indigenous Legal Orders is now mandatory at Windsor law for first-year students.

Higgins said the first thing he noted is where the law building is located. “It’s called ‘Wawiiatanong Ziibi’ — that’s an Anishinaabemowin translation of ‘where the river bends,’ ” he said.

Windsor law itself describes its location as, “on the traditional territory of the Three Fires Confederacy, which is comprised of the Ojibway, the Odawa, and the Potawatomi.” In 1812, the Shawnee hero Chief Tecumseh joined with British forces to capture Detroit from the Americans (though it was recaptured the next year).

Some of the current school building’s few existing windows look out on a bend in the Detroit River and the Ambassador Bridge that links Ontario with Michigan, the busiest border crossing between Canada and the United States. Windsor law and the University of Detroit Mercy, across the river, run a joint program where students can get both Canadian and American law degrees.

In addition to consulting with Windsor law’s Elder in Residence, Kicknosway, both the dean and Higgins have been talking with associate dean Beverly Jacobs, who is a member of the Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) community (and no relation to associate dean Laverne Jacobs).

“The design includes space for smudging [an Indigenous purifying ceremony]. And there are places for our elder to talk and work one-on-one with our students, not just Indigenous law students but all our law students,” said Beverly Jacobs.

Incorporating meaningful ceremony

While ceremony is important in all aspects of our legal system, incorporating Indigenous ceremony and law is relatively new and still in transition.

In R. v. Gladue [1999] 1 S.C.R. 688, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that courts must consider the background of Indigenous offenders when handing down a sentence. This has led to Canadian courts ordering Gladue reports before sentencing, which provide personal histories for judges to review.

Canada’s justice system now sometimes includes Gladue courts for Indigenous people, which can decide on alternative sentencing, such as sending an accused person to join a healing circle that may include the victim rather than sending the accused to jail. The new Windsor law building is designed to help students understand how all this fits in with modern law.

“I actually like to teach in a circle, and the classroom’s being set up so this can be done,” said Beverly Jacobs. “Circles are really important to Indigenous principles, because they put everyone in the room on an equal footing.”

The building will also include Indigenous art pieces, which in addition to looking good, are instructive, she added. “Our artists can visualize our laws, and art is a way to recognize the place of Indigenous law in our legal system,” she said.

“The new building is going to retain the sharp and bold exterior of the old one,” said Waters.

“On the inside, it will be much warmer and more accepting.”

David Israelson is a non-practising lawyer, author, journalist and communications consultant. You can follow him on Twitter @davidisraelson or on Linkedin.  

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