Indigenous Legal Education: Columbia University

This post is another installment in a series on Indigenous legal education in North America. Previously, I’ve posted on programmes at three Canadian universities: the University of Victoria; the University of British Columbia; and Osgoode Hall Law School at York University. This post reflects on the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights programme at Columbia University, which has quite a different focus.

Interestingly, the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights programme is not run out of the law school at Columbia. Instead, it is part of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR). ISHR has been operating for nearly 40 years and has always had a strong focus on interdisciplinary study of human rights. The current Director of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program is Elsa Stamatopoulou. She is also cross-appointed with the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and the Department of Anthropology at Columbia which is an indication of, not only the interdisciplinary perspective that underpins the programme, but also the particular connections with cultural and anthropological research. The work of faculty members from the Department of Anthropology, such as Elizabeth Povinelli, Audra Simpson, and Paige West provide important points of reference for the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights programme. This frames the discussion of Indigenous rights quite differently than a more legalistic approach.

However, the recognition and implementation of Indigenous peoples’ rights at an operational level is also a key driver of the programme. Professor Stamatopoulou has considerable experience working with Indigenous rights within the UN system and she has helped to ensure that the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights programme offers practical engagement with UN mechanisms.

The ISHR offers an annual Indigenous Studies Summer Programme on Indigenous Peoples’ Rights and Policy. The programme attracts participants from around the world, many of whom are practitioners, activists, and members of civil society organizations, working at the coal face of Indigenous rights. This brief programme description highlights the importance of the interdisciplinary approach and experiential elements of the programme, as noted above:

The program provides an overview and analysis of the major questions in indigenous affairs today as they have emerged globally in the last decades, culminating with the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The course will analyze the interaction between the Indigenous movement—one of the strongest social movements of our times—and the intergovernmental system over the past 50 years, paying close attention to its questioning of and impact on international norms, institutions and major global debates. The program will use an interdisciplinary approach, and discussion will be presented under the lens of human rights studies, international law, political science, Indigenous studies, ethnic studies, development studies, sociology and anthropology. The course incorporates lectures and workshops on the most recent and innovative academic and other research and policy debates on indigenous peoples issues. It is complemented by visits to the United Nations and a Native American Nation, lectures and discussions with United Nations officials, officials of a Native American Nation and representatives of Indigenous organizations.

Alongside the delivery of the summer programme and other courses, the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights programme helps to promote the study of Indigenous rights and bring together relevant research and researchers through a range of other initiatives and activities such as the Columbia University Seminar Series on Indigenous Studies and more focused seminars such as those that have brought together Indigenous Women Leaders. Although in quite a different context, this reinforces something I have previously noted in relation to the Canadian law school programmes – the importance of maintaining a range of inter-connected measures that support research, study, and teaching in the field of Indigenous legal education.

Indigenous Legal Education: Osgoode Hall

Osgoode Hall Law School at York University in Toronto has an Intensive Program in Aboriginal Lands, Resources & Governments which has been running for over twenty years. The programme was developed to

effectively improve law students’ understanding of Aboriginal issues and their ability to serve First Nations effectively on their own terms.

The programme is a mix of classroom-based work and field placements. Each student in the programme completes a seven-week long field placement working with an organisation that focuses on Indigenous legal issues. This might be working with an Indigenous organisation, a law firm specializing in Indigenous issues, or a relevant government or public sector agency. These placements may be in Canada or abroad. Over the last year, students have undertaken placements with the following organizations:

  • Assembly of First Nations
  • Chiefs of Ontario
  • Keewaytinok Native Legal Services
  • Windigo Tribal Council
  • British Columbia Treaty Commission
  • Nunavut Department of Justice
  • Ontario Aboriginal Affairs Secretariat
  • Yukon Department of Justice
  • Cape York Land Council, Australia
  • First National Development Institute, Botswana
  • Inter-American Development Bank, Washington, D.C.
  • Maori Legal Service/Te Ratonga Ture Community Law Centre, New Zealand

The placements provide opportunities for a range of experiential learning and as with clinical programmes at other law schools, are intended to both help to meet an urgent need for legal services and also give the students practical experience and an insight into the legal issues faced by Indigenous communities. Students undertake preparatory work before their placements and then present seminars on their experiences after they have returned. This allows from critical reflection on Indigenous legal issues and also enables students to take a step back from their own particular placement and get to grips with some deeper questions as they engage with their classmates.

A more recent development at Osgoode Hall picks up on another strand of Indigenous legal education. In September 2014, the law school organised its first Anishinaabe Law Camp. In part modeled on the long-running Aboriginal Awareness Camp held at the University of Victoria, the Anishinaabe Law Camp aims to focus on Indigenous law, in particular to encourage engagement with Anishinaabe legal traditions. Organised in collaboration with the Chippewas of Nawash, the camp has been held on their community’s reserve land north of Toronto in each of the past two years and is quickly becoming an established part of the law school calendar. Osgoode Professor Andrée Boiselle and UVic Professor John Borrows and his daughter Lindsay (who are from this community) have been instrumental in establishing this camp and ensuring this further dimension of Indigenous legal education is part of the law school programme. For a nice summary of the kind of experience that this provides for law students, see this piece written by one of the attendees at this year’s camp.

Indigenous Legal Education: UBC

This is the second in a series of posts that address interesting or innovative Indigenous legal education programmes at a number of law schools in North America. This post focuses on the Indigenous Legal Studies Program at Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

As with the programme at UVic, the programme at UBC has various strands which each contribute important aspects to the curriculum. UBC offers students the opportunity to participate in clinical practice, an Indigenous Awareness Camp, and take a range of courses focused on Indigenous legal issues, with the option of completing a specialisation in Aboriginal Law. This is also supported by research undertaken by the Centre for International Indigenous Legal Studies and the programme’s participation in the national Aboriginal Rights moot each year.

Formal clinical programmes are a more common part of legal education in North American than in New Zealand. Clinical programmes were a key component of Indigenous legal education at a number of the institutions that I visited. UBC operates the Indigenous Community Legal Clinic in downtown Vancouver. Essentially, the Clinic acts as a community law centre, with a particular focus on meeting the legal needs of First Nations people. The Clinic has both legal and academic directors, both of whom are experienced lawyers. These directors supervise the legal work undertaken by students and develop an academic programme around the students’ practical experiences. The Clinic then has two central purposes:

first, to provide free legal services to the Indigenous community in the Downtown Eastside, and second, to provide legal education to law students in the Allard School of Law. By joining the ICLC, students interested in advocacy, social justice and Aboriginal peoples can gain practical experience and make a meaningful contribution to a historically underserved and marginalized community. Working at the ICLC will give students practical hands-on experience managing client files and making court appearances.

As well as developing practical legal skills, this kind of experiential learning also exposes law students to the situation of Indigenous communities and helps them to see what the particular legal needs are of those communities and also begin to understand the aspirations of those communities and the way they operate. This is also one of the central objectives of the Indigenous Awareness Camp. The Camp is a relatively new development at UBC, the first one being held just last year. UVic has run a similar camp for 20 years now, but the adoption of the camp by UBC (and other schools such as Osgoode Hall, which I will touch on in a future post) illustrates an increasing recognition of the value of such camps as part of the law school experience.

The range of courses at UBC that focus on Indigenous legal issues is impressive and has enabled them to develop the specialisation in Aboriginal Law. To qualify for the specialisation, students must complete papers on Constitutional Law (Aboriginal and Treaty Rights) and Aboriginal Peoples and Canadian Law as well as a certain number of credits from other specified courses including Aboriginal Self Government, Aboriginal People and the Administration of Justice, First Nations and Economic Development, Indigenous Peoples in Comparative and International Law, the Aboriginal Rights Moot or the Indigenous Community Legal Clinic. These courses are supported by an impressive faculty that includes Gordon Christie, Darlene Johnston, Johnny Mack, Alex Wolf and Patricia Barkaskas at the Community Clinic, and Dana-Lyn Mackenzie as Associate Director of the Indigenous Legal Studies Program.

I was also interested in how UBC also clearly think that it is important to think carefully about the physical environment of the law school in terms of Indigenous issues.

UBC has picked up on some of the things that UVic has been doing but also has developed its own initiatives in this area. But, again, what was notable was the mix of clinical/experiential and classroom learning and the engagement with Indigenous communities that is built into the programme.

Indigenous Legal Education: UVic

Over the last month, I’ve had the opportunity to visit a number of universities in Canada and the USA that are doing interesting and innovative things in the field of Indigenous legal education. I thought that I would share a little about some of the programmes and initiatives that these institutions are running.

The first institution that I visited was the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Sometime ago, I wrote a post about the Bachelor of Indigenous Laws programme that UVic is developing. Now styled as a JID, to reflect the North American juris doctor (JD) law degree, the programme is still in development. Important progress is, however, being made.

An Indigenous Law Research Unit has been established. The vision of this research unit is described as follows:

Our vision is to honour the internal strengths and resiliencies present in Indigenous societies and in their legal traditions, and to identify legal principles that may be accessed and applied today – to governance, lands and waters, environment and resources, justice and safety, and building Indigenous economies.

Led by Val Napoleon, the Indigenous Law Research Unit (ILRU) engages with Indigenous communities to assist those communities to use their own laws and processes to address issues faced by those communities. At the same time, this work provides an important foundation for the developing JID programme. Research assistants that work with the Indigenous Law Research Unit undertake coursework which provides training on working with Indigenous legal traditions and it is intended that this coursework will eventually form part of the JID. It is also envisaged that the JID will have a significant experiential or clinical component and that students in the JID might have formal placements working with Indigenous communities. The work the the Indigenous Law Research Unit is currently undertaking is also helping to establish and strengthen the law school’s relationships with Indigenous communities and refining an approach to this work which is supportive of Indigenous communities and also allows law students to gain vital experience. And the substantive content of this work – the identification and articulation of Indigenous laws, legal principles and processes – is also helping to build a curriculum for the JID programme.

To support this work and encourage critical thinking and discussion about Indigenous law, the Indigenous Law Research Unit has also produced a series of videos on the topic (available on the ILRU website and definitely worth a look if you haven’t seen them). The videos feature leading Indigenous scholars, including Val Napoleon, John Borrows, Jeff Corntassel, and Johnny Mack. The ILRU has also produced a discussion guide to accompany the videos and draw out key ideas and perspectives on these issues. This also builds on work that the ILRU did in conjunction with the Indigenous Bar Association on the Accessing Justice and Reconciliation Project, which, amongst other things, produced a number of educational resources, including a graphic narrative and teaching guide.

In short, there is a range of great stuff being done in this area by the folks at UVic. This work include scholarly research, development of classroom teaching, experiential learning, working with Indigenous communities, and production of public education resources. And these various strands reinforce each other and support what is potentially quite a transformative approach to Indigenous legal education.