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Jula Hughes, Dean, Bora Laskin Faculty of Law, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay

New Indigenous law institute at Lakehead University meets growing need, says law dean

Tuesday, April 13, 2021 @ 9:56 AM | By John Schofield

The launch of a new Indigenous law and justice institute at Lakehead University’s Bora Laskin Faculty of Law will help meet the increasing demand for skills in Indigenous law in Northern Ontario and beyond, says dean of law Jula Hughes.

The Thunder Bay, Ont.-based institute, which has been named Maamawi Bimosewag — They Walk Together, officially started operations April 1 thanks, in part, to $437,000 in funding from the federal Department of Justice’s Justice Partnership and Innovation Program. Nancy Sandy, an assistant professor in the faculty of law and a specialist in Aboriginal law and Indigenous legal traditions will serve as director.

 Lakehead University dean of law Jula Hughes

Jula Hughes, Lakehead University dean of law

“The range of applications is quite broad and rapidly growing,” Hughes told The Lawyer’s Daily. “These are areas where our students increasingly just have to be competent in order to provide legal services to local communities, but also broadly across Canada.”

She said the demand is being fuelled, in part, by ongoing devolution of social programming to Indigenous communities — work being done through treaty organizations, tribal councils and individual First Nations communities as they take on responsibility for services such as child welfare, education and health.

“That’s achieved generally through federal jurisdictional agreements,” explained Hughes. “So in the context of these jurisdictional agreements, we’re seeing the use of Indigenous laws — locally here I would say predominantly Anishinaabe law. But then a little further west and still within the range of the Nishnawbe Aski nation communities, we’re seeing the application of Cree law, as well.”

Applications of Indigenous law are also increasing in the area of criminal and provincial offences justice, she said.

“With the expansion of Gladue into bail courts, into mental health, we’re seeing just an expansion of the understanding of restorative justice and arguing Indigenous legal principles,” she noted. “If I’m just thinking about Anishinaabe law, maybe the Grandfather Teachings as legal principles that might inform the interpretation of statutory requirements. There are also examples in Nunavut in the context of Inuit law being incorporated into statutory language.”

The Federal Court has perhaps made the most progress in that regard with things like land codes and membership codes, said Hughes. These are sometimes accomplished by traditional governments through bylaw regulation powers under the Indian Act. But in some cases, off-reserve organizations outside of the Indian Act are adopting corporate bylaws that incorporate Indigenous legal principles.

The creation of the institute fulfils call to action No. 50 in the Truth and Reconciliation report, which calls on the federal government, in collaboration with Aboriginal organizations, “to fund the establishment of Indigenous law institutes for the development, use, and understanding of Indigenous laws and access to justice in accordance with the unique cultures of Aboriginal peoples in Canada.”

Because Indigenous legal expertise resides in the community, said Hughes, the institute’s first mission is to engage with communities in a sustained and respectful way to advance the use of Indigenous laws in a community-driven manner. Secondly, it will develop curriculum to help students become competent practitioners in Indigenous law and justice.

And, finally, the institute will carry out research and will build on the faculty’s annual Indigenous law conference, bringing together community leaders and members, knowledge keepers, scholars and students.

“That may take the form of a codification or a summation in some way,” Hughes said. “But it probably involves doing things like interviewing knowledge keepers in the community, developing a sense that some laws may be public and other laws may be internal, and maybe sacred knowledge that isn’t shared outside of the community.”

According to a March 24 news release announcing the institute, it will “investigate treaty history and practice, conduct community-based workshops and document Anishinaabe and Métis law, legal principles and processes in culturally-appropriate and community-accessible ways.”

The Bora Laskin Faculty of Law, which opened in 2013, came under fire in 2018 following the resignation of then dean Angelique EagleWoman, who alleged she had been the victim of systemic racism at the university because she is an Indigenous woman. EagleWoman did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment about the new Indigenous law and justice institute.

Hughes declined to comment on the controversy, saying she was not with the faculty of law at the time. But the faculty’s working relationship with the institute’s key partners has been good, she said. They include the Anishinabek Nation, Fort William First Nation, Grand Council Treaty #3, the Métis Nation of Ontario, the Nishnawbe Aski Nation and the Chiefs of Ontario.

“This is the next step in that relationship,” she added, “and the institute responds to needs that those partners have also flagged and desires for their own community members to be educated in Indigenous law.”

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