Indigenous law students proud to be part of next legal generation but feel they share a burden

Panel at annual conference on Indigenous peoples and the law highlighted experiences at law school

Indigenous law students proud to be part of next legal generation but feel they share a burden
Indigenous students from Peter A. Allard School of Law were part of a panel discussing their experiences

Indigenous law students from different schools across Canada said at the Indigenous Peoples and the Law conference last week that they are proud to be at the forefront of the next generation of lawyers. Still, they feel they share a heavy burden on many fronts as they progress through their studies.

"I didn't come to law school to get a piece of paper and get a job," said Verukah Poirier, a second-year student at the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia. "I came to law school, to give back and to be a role model . . .to help other people."

She made her comments during a panel discussion on Nov. 18 at the Canadian Institute for the Administration of Justice's annual conference on Indigenous peoples and the law. Five Indigenous students from different backgrounds talked about their experiences in law school.

The mixed settler-Samson Cree nation student added that she often deals with fellow students who don't "see life and don't see law the way we do." As well, there is pressure from teachers to do a lot of extra work. "I think that Indigenous students inherently do extra work . . . and listening to how our [Indigenous] laws are not on equal footing.”

Shayla Praud, a third-year law student at the University of Victoria, said that during her education, "there have been times where professors have — maybe without even realizing — relied on the Indigenous students to almost verify what they're saying." She said this can put a lot of strain on students who are supposed to be learning and shouldn't be carrying that emotional burden.

Praud, who is Eagle clan from the Nisga'a community, noted that there had been times when non-Indigenous students have asked her to explain Indigenous or Aboriginal law as if they felt they "couldn't ask professors" or access resources to find out more.

Jamie-Lee Keith, a student at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, said that even though there are Indigenous students at her school, there is only one other female Metis student, who isn't in her year. "The pressure is that sometimes you feel alone,” said Praud, who is also communications director at Two Rivers Metis Society serving the Kamloops area. "And yes, there are moments where I have been asked to speak for the entire nation." While that doesn't particularly bother her, Praud said, and she is "proud to speak" about her heritage, it does create pressure.

Cassandra Sawyers, a third-year student at Allard, said she understands non-Indigenous professors can't "be expected to know everything," and may ask about the experiences of Indigenous students. However, "they can expect those student . . . may be uncomfortable in answering."

Another point Sawyers, who is Cree Metis from Dawson Creek, wanted to make is that Indigenous peoples are often lumped together as one and don't realize the many difference between communities of First Nations, Metis and non-status. "If someone asks me [something] in class, I may not know because I'm not from that community. "

She added she "really want to lay it out there" for non-Indigenous people "about how different we all are, and the need to take the time to get to know the people who interact with."

The panel of students also discussed their views on whether some Indigenous law courses should be mandatory. Justin Thompson, a student at York University's Osgoode Hall Law School, said that while one Indigenous law requirement is needed to graduate, there is a wide range of such courses available. So, a student can "pick a course that best fits what [they] want to learn as an Indigenous person [or] as a non-Indigenous person."

From Nipissing First Nation in Ontario, Thompson added: "I'm currently taking the Indigenous people and Canadian law course and my professor is an Indigenous man. And I find it really integrates Indigenous legal orders and Indigenous teachings well within the course. So, it's been very beneficial."

However, other students on the panel questioned whether courses should be forced to take classes that they must pay for if they don't want to be there. "As hard as I try, I can't wrap my head around forcing someone to learn when they don't want to learn," said Praud. She said she might be persuaded to change that opinion, noting; "I hear my elder in the back of my head saying 'Jamie, it's those that don't want to hear who need to be there the most.'"

Panel moderator Mark Gervin, director of the Indigenous Legal Clinic at Allard, said he has chaffed "at having students that didn't want to be there either." But he found that some of his favourite students have been those "who have been, in a way, forced."

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