Indigenous law expert Aimée Craft honoured by CBA

U. of Ottawa law prof has children’s book coming out on treaty relationships and natural environment

Indigenous law expert Aimée Craft honoured by CBA
Aimee Craft is an Indigenous law expert and recently received a President’s Award from the CBA. | Photo credit: KC Adams

In February Aimée Craft, an associate professor in the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law, took home a President’s Award from the Canadian Bar Association at its annual general meeting.

Craft is recognized internationally for her expertise in Indigenous laws, treaties and water; and although her career path has been circuitous, what drew her to it was “a deep passion for the land,” she says.

Raised in rural Manitoba and of Anishinaabe and Métis descent, “having grown up on the land in relationship with land and water, and understanding that special relationship that you can have as an Indigenous person” directed her in her career and to her current research areas, she says; those include Indigenous law, the reclamation of Indigenous birthing practices as expressions of territorial sovereignty, and Indigenous relationships with and responsibilities to water.

“Looking through that lens,” she saw “everything around us as our relations and our kin,” she says, and “wanting to have that reflected in other legal systems that are imposing other ways of thinking about viewing the world and making decisions that don't involve indigenous people was a priority for me in how my legal career evolved.”

Called to the bar of Manitoba after earning a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Ottawa and a Master of Laws from the University of Victoria, Craft returned to the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law – Common Law Section in 2017, where she teaches constitutional law, Indigenous juridical traditions, Indigenous people and the law, Indigenous legal mechanisms, and water rights. She is also an Adjunct Professor in Law at the University of Manitoba.

Previously she taught at the University of Manitoba, was research director for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and a litigator for the Public Interest Law Centre in Winnipeg for 11 years before that.

In 2013 Craft’s award-winning  book Breathing Life Into the Stone Fort Treaty: An Anishnabe Understanding of Treaty One, looked at understanding and interpreting treaties from an Anishinaabe legal perspective. Her upcoming children’s book, Treaty Words: For As Long As the Rivers Flow, which will be published on March 9 by Annick Press, “is about understanding treaty relationships and concepts like respect and renewal and reciprocity, as modeled in our natural environment,” she says.

In 2016, Craft was voted one of the top 25 most influential lawyers in Canada by Canadian Lawyer. She spoke to Canadian Lawyer from her home near Winnipeg about her research and trends in environmental and Indigenous law and practice.

What are you working on now?

The bulk of my work right now is in the area of decolonizing water governance; so, looking at indigenous laws and legal orders relating to water, and how we make decisions about water use. I've worked quite extensively in the Treaty 3 area [in northwestern Ontario and eastern  Manitoba] on what's called a “nibi” declaration, which is a water declaration, [helping First Nations] codify in a declaration form the Anishinaabe relationship to water.

Some other work [is] around Indigenous laws and legal orders and constitutionalism, relating to specific communities. And the third and fourth dimension of the work that I'm currently doing is looking at concepts of personhood, of water, and agency and spiritedness of water; then I'm starting to delve into Indigenous birthing as a form of territorial sovereignty, and looking at women's jurisdiction relating to lands, waters, birthing, and how those are connected. So I have a pretty big research portfolio right now!

The Magpie River in Quebec was recently granted “personhood” status, a first in Canada, which was described as following a larger trend in environmental personhood.

In the seventies, there was a push towards rights of nature. Since 2017, there have been a few different recognitions of legal personhood of rivers. In New Zealand, there's a personhood that’s granted by statute, in India by court cases, and in Colombia in conjunction with constitutional principles, also through court cases. And the government of Bangladesh recognized personhood for all its rivers in 2019.

It’s a very interesting and evolving area. What I'm exploring is that as a Western law concept, and whether or not it applies in Indigenous contexts, and is there something more that we can think about in terms of how we recognize the agency and spiritedness of water, and not just as personhood like you would for a corporation?

What does your work on the water declaration in Treaty 3 involve?

We worked on the lawmaking model of the nations -- worked within all four regions -- and under the guidance of the women's Council; women have jurisdiction over water and the national dialogue. What we did is bring together the principles and teachings that we've learned from elders, a variety of different sources, and then thematically organize them to issue a declaration and a statement about the relationship with water. What you'll see is not what looks like a legislative form, where there's obligations and rights and penalties and consequences; it's more relying on compliance with these sacred principles and explaining this relationship with water.

The declaration is in written form in English, but orally interpreted in Anishinaabemowin, which we've termed to be an equally authoritative version of the declaration. So we have those two forms, and also what you could call a logo, which is an artistic expression of the sacred relationship between water and all other beings that illustrates, essentially, the whole of the declaration in just one image. It’s a very multidimensional declaration, and it was ratified by the nation as a whole in assembly. That's roughly 25,000 people and 28 First Nations communities that are part of the Treaty 3 nations, in May 2019. Now we're looking at implementation, and a variety of initiatives under that, including a web portal where people can share teachings and knowledge relating to water.

What is your work in birthing?

I work with an Anishinaabe birthing collective in Treaty 3, and we're exploring the reconnection of birthing to community and land, and the connection between continued women's jurisdiction over lands and waters, and reigniting and reconnecting children and youth through different rites of passage ceremonies to their traditional territory. This is in part contesting the way Canadian law has focused section 35 and treaty and Aboriginal rights on male activities and male-dominated practices -- hunting, trapping and fishing -- and really hadn't focused on what's important to women.

Canada has an evacuation policy, whereby women who are in remote communities are evacuated into urban centres to birth. We have whole generations -- about two generations now, in some communities -- that have not been born in their communities, although women have tended to hide their pregnancies so that they wouldn't be medically evacuated. So this is a response to an over-medicalization, through law and policy, of Indigenous birthing, and a reclamation of traditional birthing practices, and supporting those, and thinking about the importance of territorial and land-based birthing, and culturally-based practices of birthing as reinforcing that link to territory.

I also work with a collective that is looking at Cree and Blackfoot birthing practices, and doing collaborative exchanges around that as well.

And you work in constitutional law as well?

I work with a variety of different nations on establishing their own legal principles and constitutional foundations: essentially trying to help nations that are establishing their … participation in other processes of decision making, and the principles by which decisions are made. That includes environmental decision making and conservation, and trying to give effect not only to Indigenous knowledge as equal to Western science, but looking at laws and governance as informing the how and the basis on which decisions are actually made.

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