For four days this month, people in Winnipeg came together to learn about a dark period in Canadian history.
Almost 150 years after the residential school system was implemented in Canada, the negative effects it had on the country’s aboriginal population are still being felt today. With the formation of the truth and reconciliation commission, officials are making efforts to find out what took place in the residential schools. Part of the commission’s five-year plan is a series of national events held in different regions across Canada. The first event took place in Winnipeg from June 16-19.
As part of the event, the law school at the University of Manitoba was represented by 25 volunteer students at a question-and-answer session. Organized by Karen Busby, a law professor at the university, and Dayna Steinfeld, a second-year student and research assistant, the volunteers were on hand for the duration of the event to provide legal information and help to anyone who wanted to learn more about aboriginal law.
“I was approached by the truth and reconciliation commission, and said that they were going to have a learning panel,” says Busby.
“They asked if we wanted to participate, and we felt that a Q&A table was a good way to provide information. We also put together a brochure and a video series that go into further detail about aboriginal law.”
According to Steinfeld, there was no problem when it came to finding volunteers as students at the law school were quick to sign up to support a worthy cause.
“We had tons of responses from students, and it was great to see that so many of them were willing to volunteer on their own time,” says Steinfeld.
With the commission hoping the event would raise awareness and begin the long road towards healing for Canada’s aboriginal population, making legal information accessible is important, she notes. “We really believe that in order for reconciliation to occur, all Canadians, aboriginal and non-aboriginal, need to have a foundation of knowledge. Everyone needs to be aware of the basic questions about aboriginal constitutional law. For example, what is a treaty? A lot of people don’t know, or don’t understand, and that can create conflict in general Canadian society.”
While the Q&A table was aimed at those attending the event, it was also a source of education and experience for the student volunteers. Aboriginal constitutional law is compulsory in the first year of study at the law school, and in later years, it’s further integrated into the curriculum through classes and seminars. Students who volunteered were not only given the opportunity to apply what they had learned, they were also presented with basic aboriginal legal issues in a non-classroom setting.
“I encouraged the students to ask the survivors, ‘Where are you from?’” says Busby. “Once they started talking about their home communities, they would engage in longer discussions. It was simply an amazing encounter between young law students and survivors coming to a better understanding of each other.”
Steinfeld agrees the event was a unique opportunity for knowledge to be shared.
“We had some really good questions presented to us, questions that were quite varied,” she says. “We had people asking us about how aboriginal law fits into the Canadian legal structure. We were asked about how treaties are negotiated and whether or not they can be renegotiated. Several non-aboriginal Canadians asked us about the compensation that is available to survivors, which was good to see. And we were also asked questions about ourselves — where we’re from, why we were there. The survivors were really excited to know about the group of law students, and it was an excellent topic of conversation.”
The national event in Winnipeg was the first of seven that are to be held across Canada over the next four years. Given the Q&A table’s success, Busby hopes other law schools will follow the University of Manitoba’s example.
“It was fun to organize; the students were very excited to do it; and it’s a great cause,” she says. “I would highly recommend being a part of it. It was a lot of fun and also deeply satisfying for all involved.”
Click here to read the University of Manitoba Faculty of Law’s fact sheet about aboriginal law in Canada.