Val Napoleon, who earned her own law degree after becoming a grandmother, is instrumental in supporting the resurgence of Indigenous legal order in Canada. (UVic photo services)

Val Napoleon, who earned her own law degree after becoming a grandmother, is instrumental in supporting the resurgence of Indigenous legal order in Canada. (UVic photo services)

Indigenous law being steadily rebuilt in Canada, says B.C. university professor

‘We don’t have to argue that Indigenous people have law anymore’

Three years after welcoming the first students to the Indigenous law degree at the University of Victoria, Val Napoleon says Indigenous law is being purposefully rebuilt and gradually recognized in Canada.

“We don’t have to argue that Indigenous people have law anymore,” she said. “Some lower court judges are already drawing on Indigenous law principles as sources of reasoning, not as evidence, but as a principled way to think through cases.”

A huge contributor to the shift has come from the Indigenous Laws Research Unit, co-founded by Napoleon almost 10 years ago, long before she thought an Indigenous law degree could be possible. The research unit works directly with Indigenous communities to articulate and modernize their laws.

Ten years ago there was a fear about Indigenous law. People didn’t understand that it has the same goals as Canadian law — safety, fairness, dignity, inclusion, she said. “It was too scary. It was a black hole.”

READ MORE:Federal government commits $9.1 million toward UVic Indigenous Law building

But as the research unit has produced reports on Sepwepemc citizenship, Coast Salish child and caregiver nurturance law, water laws, Tsimshian inter-nation co-operation and dispute resolution, Anishinaabe community governance and more, the non-Indigenous judiciary has been able to see that, Indigenous law is just law.

Then came the joint law degree in 2018, the first of its kind in the world. Students earn a full Canadian law degree, juris doctor, and an Indigenous law degree, juris indigenarium doctor — indigenarium is a tongue-in-cheek word that plays on the judiciary’s love of Latin words — over four years. Most law degrees take three years.

For each core course — property, torts, contracts, etc. — is taught with Canadian common law and Indigenous law side by side. For example, Napoleon teaches Gitksan and Canadian land and property law in one double course. Anishinaabic constitutional law, Cree criminal law, Tsilhqot’in contracts and Coast Salish torts are each learned beside their Canadian counterparts.

Now the first cohort of students are embedded in field school, a year away from crossing the stage, and they’re already being snapped up by law firms and booked by their communities back home.

“We can’t keep up with demand,” Napoleon said about the hunger from communities wanting to articulate their law into practice, and from the judiciary who need training and knowledge and lawyers. The research unit also does a lot of workshops with lawyers, government workers and other organizations.

READ MORE: UVic launches historic Indigenous law program

One thing she and her colleagues across the country are determined to do is ensuring that Indigenous law is scrutinized to make sure it meets the highest standards of law. That often means making sure all people are represented in the law, and that it upholds the dignity of all people.

“When people feel that they don’t matter to the legal institution of their world, when they don’t believe they are rights holders, that their legal issues don’t matter, that’s when you have problems. Because what are people going to do when they don’t matter?” she asks.

“We have to be able to say our laws uphold human dignity because if it doesn’t our society will fragment over time.”

For more news from Vancouver Island and beyond delivered daily into your inbox, please click here.


Do you have something to add to this story, or something else we should report on? Email: zoe.ducklow@blackpress.ca. Follow us on Instagram. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

IndigenousLaw & JusticeUVicWest Shore

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Interfor’s Castlegar mill is getting $35 million in upgrades. Photo by: John Boivin
Interfor to invest $35 million at Castlegar mill

Project will enhance productivity and competitiveness

A medical worker prepares vials of the COVID-19 vaccines, Chinese Sinopharm, left, Sputnik V, center, and Pfizer at a vaccine centre, in the Usce shopping mall in Belgrade, Serbia, Thursday, May 6, 2021. Serbian authorities are looking for incentives for people to boost vaccination that has slowed down in recent weeks amid widespread anti-vaccination and conspiracy theories in the Balkan nation. The government has also promised a payment of around 25 euros to everyone who gets vaccinated by the end of May. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
38 new COVID-19 cases, more than 335k vaccines administered in Interior Health

Interior Health also to start targeted vaccinations in high transmission neighbourhoods

FILE PHOTO
Second doses of COVID-19 vaccine will be available, as AstraZeneca supply runs low: Interior Health

Province expecting large volumes of Pfizer BioNTech as age-based cohort immunization program ramps up

The Trail ambassador candidates are taking their talents to the stage Friday night, with the showcase culminating in the crowning of a new Miss Trail, Miss Trail Princess and Miss Congeniality. Photo: Trail Ambassador Programme
Miss Trail 2021 will be crowned Friday night

After the 2020 pageant was cancelled, seven candidates remained for this year’s event

Greg Nesteroff and Eric Brighton, the historians behind popular Facebook page Lost Kootenays, are set to release a book of the same name and have just unveiled its cover showing the ghostly Hotel in Slocan City shortly before its 1953 demolition. Photo courtesy of Greg Nesteroff and Eric Brighton.
Popular historical Facebook page Lost Kootenays set to release book

128-page hard copy documenting history of East and West Kootenays coming this fall

(The Canadian Press)
Trudeau won’t say whether Canada supports patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines

‘Canada is at the table to help find a solution’

Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his 100th point this season with Leon Draisaitl (29) against the Vancouver Canucks during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday, May 8, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Edmonton superstar McDavid hits 100-point mark as Oilers edge Canucks 4-3

NHL scoring leader needs just 53 games to hit century mark

A map showing where the most number of cases were recorded from April 23 to 29. This map, revealing a breakdown of infections by neighborhood, was pulled from a data package leaked to the Vancouver Sun last week (and independently verified).
36 Abbotsford schools flagged for COVID-19 exposures in the last 2 weeks, shattering record

Clearbrook Elementary recorded an ‘exposure’ on all 11 school days

Canada’s chief public health officer is reminding Canadians even those who are fully vaccinated are not immune from transmitting the COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s top doctor warns full vaccination does not equal full protection from COVID-19

Post-inoculation, Theresa Tam says the risk of asymptomatic infection and transmission is far lower but not obsolete

The dash cam footage, taken May 7 at 8:18 a.m. belonged to the driver of a southbound vehicle that recently travelled out of the tunnel. (Reddit/Screen grab)
VIDEO: Dash cam captures dramatic rollover crash on Highway 99

Only one person sustained injuries from the collision, says B.C. Ambulance Services

Chevy stranded on a ledge above a rocky canyon at Mimi Falls near Logan Lake, April 28, 2021. (Photo credit: Margot Wikjord)
Police officer and fire chief team up in risky rescue of stranded dog near Logan Lake

Chevy, a rescue dog, needed rescuing again after getting stuck on a ledge above rocky canyon

Police were on the scene of a fatal shooting in Abbotsford. (Black Press Media files)
B.C. government to give more than $8 million for programs to curb gang violence

221 not-for-profit projects led by local governments and school districts among others will receive a one-time grant

Gord Judson steers his log truck down a forest service road, using two-way radio and call signals to mark his position for oncoming traffic. (B.C. Forest Safety Council)
Planning some B.C. wilderness fishing? Don’t catch a log truck

Remote recreation areas bracing for heavy pandemic pressure

Most Read