“I got the idea from Elin Sigurdson (@elinthebean) saying in a tweet somewhere that she had been thinking about what kind of syllabi you might have for reconciliation and so her question made me think, ‘that is an awesome idea,’ and I kind of ran with it,” says Rebecca Johnson, a professor at The University of Victoria’s Faculty of Law.
Johnson wanted to see action and change right away so she joined forces with UVic's associate law dean Gillian Calder.
“What I didn’t want to see happen was people look at this and then agree that we need new curriculum and then spend the next 10 years thinking about what the curriculum might be before we started to see real action.”
Calder says law schools need to consider teaching a full gamut of skills to law students, including empathy and creativity. Law students need skills that can respond to a country where there is an indigenous legal system and colonialism has such deep effects, especially in terms of the residential schools.
“We need to bring to indigenous laws the kind of seriousness that we bring to non-indigenous law, so that indigenous law students can learn to reason with their traditions with the rigour and soundness that we require all our students to bring to non-indigenous law,” wrote Uvic law dean Jeremy Webber in a recent column for Slaw.
“Right now, there is not a law school in the country that fully achieves that aim. We give our students an excellent training in the Common or Civil Law (as we should). We also teach them the Canadian law with respect to Indigenous peoples, and in the best programs today, introduce some dimensions of Indigenous legal traditions. But in that last respect we give them, in almost all cases, the barest of introductions,” he wrote.
While adding courses may be useful, Calder believes it is not the only solution.
“[A] stand-alone course can sometimes marginalize an issue, it can say ‘take this one course and then we don’t have to think about those issues in other places.’”
“The idea behind the reconciliation syllabus blog is to share ideas, across institutions particularly for us to think about whether we can pool our resources . . . in order to teach the reconciliation syllabus more uniformly and at a higher level across Canada,” says Emma Cunliffe at the University of British Columbia’s Peter A. Allard School of Law, who blogs about criminal law and reconciliation.
There is much to learn about criminal law and the indigenous population for law students, she says.
“In particular, they may not be aware of the disproportionate, adverse impact of the criminal justice system on indigenous communities,” she says.
In fact, she notes, if you look at every level of the penal system, including incarceration and imprisonment, aboriginal people are over-represented.
“Despite the Supreme Court of Canada’s attempt to address that and the Parliament’s attempt to address that, that problem is getting worse rather than better,” she says.
Reconciliation is a long and difficult process and the 94 recommendations in the TRC’s summary are calling on all sorts of people who hold power in society to do things differently, says Calder.
A course in legal ethics already exists in B.C., she notes, but to truly dig into the issue, there needs to be a resource to deepen the conversation.
“We are pretty conservative in how we teach legal education and I think to respond to the TRC we need to be transformative, innovative,” she says.
So far, Calder and Johnson have reached out to representatives from all the law schools across the country to sign up an administrator from each school. The aim is to have uniform representation and organize posts without too much gatekeeping, while respecting the process of reconciliation and allowing students, professors, and lawyers to speak openly.
While a lot of useful content has already been posted, including links to various resources, Johnson says there is more to come.
“We are going to create three new slices, where there are places for law professors to share what they have been doing or trying.”
The other two “slices” will be for lawyers and law students. Lawyers can comment on something that came out of their lawyering experience that may help with reconciliation. Law students can post thoughts and suggestions on their experience of learning about reconciliation at law school.
“Professors would be really interested to get this kind of feedback from students, that isn’t attached to professors, but is attached to the content and the challenges,” says Johnson.
Besides technical issues and administrative issues, the project faces another key challenge: fear.
“I think bravery is a piece of a puzzle for us,” says Johnson. “When you read the report, no matter how you are positioned, the magnitude of it is really weighty and it’s very easy for people to become paralyzed by guilt or paralyzed by fear that what they do might replicate the errors of the past,” she notes.
Overcoming fears and sharing what worked and what didn’t during Johnson’s teaching practice is exactly what helped her to grow and learn.
“It’s very clear that people have an appetite for change,” she says.
“I suspect that the rhythm of discussion and action will increase when the fall term begins,” said Webber.