UBC making aboriginal law course mandatory

Known for its emphasis on teaching aboriginal law, the University of British Columbia Faculty of Law is taking it one step further by making it a mandatory component of the curriculum.

Starting this fall, all incoming first-year law students will be required to complete the Aboriginal Rights and Treaties in Canada section of their Constitutional Law 100 course.

Darlene Johnston, one of the UBC law professors who will be teaching the course, says the faculty was reviewing its curriculum in light of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada’s 2015 compliance deadline for national standards, one of which is that graduates demonstrate competency in aboriginal rights. She says there was some concern that not all constitutional law professors were covering the aboriginal law portion of the course.

“Students reported different coverage in their constitutional law courses; some professors spent time on it under federalism, some professors spent time on it when they were looking at the Charter [of Rights and Freedoms], but it was very uneven treatment and some sections didn’t get any exposure at all to s. 35” of the Charter, says Johnston. “We’re concerned that in a province where aboriginal issues are front and centre, that students get an early, adequate, coherent exposure to it.”

Sara Hopkins, who graduated from UBC law earlier this year, was vice president of the academic issues committee. During the process of modifying the curriculum, she found the same problem.

“What we found as students talking to other students was that the range of experience in first year was very broad,” she says.

In the past, Aboriginal Rights and Treaties in Canada was offered as an optional upper-year course but typically had one of the lowest enrolments, says Johnston. So the faculty decided to make it mandatory to ensure competency among its graduates.

“[Aboriginal law is] very important, particularly in British Columbia, there’s so many outstanding rights and titles claims. It has a huge impact on government and resource development and government policies,” says Johnston. “So we thought that particularly for graduates who are going to practise in British Columbia that we should be taking a lead on this.”

Keith Bergner, a partner at Lawson Lundell LLP in Vancouver who practises aboriginal law, agrees there needs to be an emphasis in this area.

“Aboriginal law has become — particularly in the last 10 or 15 years — an enormously important and relatively new area of law,” he says. “It’s rapidly changing and I think that it’s an important foundational piece for young lawyers, particularly in B.C.”

Even if students aren’t planning to specialize in aboriginal law, it’s still beneficial to become familiar with its general concepts because it arises in all kinds of areas of law, such as real estate, corporate-commercial law, and litigation, he adds.

“I would be hard-pressed to name a practice area generally that isn’t impacted in some way by aboriginal law issues,” says Bergner. “You don’t have to practise aboriginal law to benefit by some exposure to it, at least enough to be able to spot the issue.”

Hopkins, who is now articling, is of the same mindset.

“Even if our students don’t go out and deal with [aboriginal] issues, it’s really important to know where they’re going to come up. It’s a huge issue in B.C. with our resource economy and it’s really important that every lawyer practising in B.C. has an understanding,” she says.

But as with any change, there are always some individuals who are against it. During the reform process, Hopkins says there was resistance from students.

“We did get some feedback that there could be a backlash, that students would say, ‘Well why do I have to take this mandatory course? I’m not interested in this area,’” she says.

The fact that the UBC Faculty of Law has the highest enrolment of aboriginal students of any law school in Canada poses a potential concern. Hopkins says she’s hopeful there aren’t any repercussions for aboriginal students, but it’s important for the faculty to explain to students why this reform is taking place.

“The fear was expressed that perhaps aboriginal students who are currently attending UBC would be targeted or would be the subject of comments or general blame on behalf of the other students,” says Hopkins. “I sincerely hope that that would never be the case.”

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