Val Napoleon, who earned her own law degree after becoming a grandmother, is instrumental in supporting the resurgence of Indigenous legal order in Canada. (UVic photo services)

Val Napoleon, who earned her own law degree after becoming a grandmother, is instrumental in supporting the resurgence of Indigenous legal order in Canada. (UVic photo services)

Indigenous law being steadily rebuilt in Canada, says B.C. university professor

‘We don’t have to argue that Indigenous people have law anymore’

Three years after welcoming the first students to the Indigenous law degree at the University of Victoria, Val Napoleon says Indigenous law is being purposefully rebuilt and gradually recognized in Canada.

“We don’t have to argue that Indigenous people have law anymore,” she said. “Some lower court judges are already drawing on Indigenous law principles as sources of reasoning, not as evidence, but as a principled way to think through cases.”

A huge contributor to the shift has come from the Indigenous Laws Research Unit, co-founded by Napoleon almost 10 years ago, long before she thought an Indigenous law degree could be possible. The research unit works directly with Indigenous communities to articulate and modernize their laws.

Ten years ago there was a fear about Indigenous law. People didn’t understand that it has the same goals as Canadian law — safety, fairness, dignity, inclusion, she said. “It was too scary. It was a black hole.”

READ MORE:Federal government commits $9.1 million toward UVic Indigenous Law building

But as the research unit has produced reports on Sepwepemc citizenship, Coast Salish child and caregiver nurturance law, water laws, Tsimshian inter-nation co-operation and dispute resolution, Anishinaabe community governance and more, the non-Indigenous judiciary has been able to see that, Indigenous law is just law.

Then came the joint law degree in 2018, the first of its kind in the world. Students earn a full Canadian law degree, juris doctor, and an Indigenous law degree, juris indigenarium doctor — indigenarium is a tongue-in-cheek word that plays on the judiciary’s love of Latin words — over four years. Most law degrees take three years.

For each core course — property, torts, contracts, etc. — is taught with Canadian common law and Indigenous law side by side. For example, Napoleon teaches Gitksan and Canadian land and property law in one double course. Anishinaabic constitutional law, Cree criminal law, Tsilhqot’in contracts and Coast Salish torts are each learned beside their Canadian counterparts.

Now the first cohort of students are embedded in field school, a year away from crossing the stage, and they’re already being snapped up by law firms and booked by their communities back home.

“We can’t keep up with demand,” Napoleon said about the hunger from communities wanting to articulate their law into practice, and from the judiciary who need training and knowledge and lawyers. The research unit also does a lot of workshops with lawyers, government workers and other organizations.

READ MORE: UVic launches historic Indigenous law program

One thing she and her colleagues across the country are determined to do is ensuring that Indigenous law is scrutinized to make sure it meets the highest standards of law. That often means making sure all people are represented in the law, and that it upholds the dignity of all people.

“When people feel that they don’t matter to the legal institution of their world, when they don’t believe they are rights holders, that their legal issues don’t matter, that’s when you have problems. Because what are people going to do when they don’t matter?” she asks.

“We have to be able to say our laws uphold human dignity because if it doesn’t our society will fragment over time.”

For more news from Vancouver Island and beyond delivered daily into your inbox, please click here.


Do you have something to add to this story, or something else we should report on? Email: zoe.ducklow@blackpress.ca. Follow us on Instagram. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

IndigenousLaw & JusticeUVicWest Shore

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

“Skeena,” by John Hudson and Paul Hanslow is one of five fonts in the running to become the default for Microsoft systems and Office programs. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Font named after Skeena River could become the next Microsoft default

One of the five new fonts will replace Calibri, which has been Microsoft’s default since 2007

FILE – Residents of the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory southwest of Montreal continue to monitor a blockade leading to blocked railroad tracks that pass through their community as they protest in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs on Sunday, March 1, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter McCabe
B.C. Supreme Court rejects Wet’suwet’en bid to toss LNG pipeline certificate

Opposition last year by Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs set off Canada-wide rail blockades

B.C.’s public health restrictions on non-essential travel are reinforced by orders effective April 23, 2021 to stay within your own regional health authority except for essential travel such as work and medical appointmens. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 non-essential travel ban takes effect, $575 fines approved

Checks on highways, ferries between Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island, Interior

Protesters attempt to stop clear-cutting of old-growth trees in Fairy Creek near Port Renfrew. (Will O’Connell photo)
VIDEO: Workers, activists clash at site of Vancouver Island logging operation

Forest license holders asking for independent investigation into incident

A worker rides a bike at a B.C. Hydro substation in Vancouver, on Friday, April 16, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
BC Hydro report raises safety concerns as pandemic prompts jump in yard work

Incidents involving weekend tree trimmers, gardeners and landscapers have risen 30% since the pandemic hit

Starting Tuesday, May 11, B.C. adults born in 1981 and earlier will be able to register for a vaccine dose. (Haley Ritchie/Black Press Media)
BC adults 40+ eligible to book COVID-19 vaccinations next week

Starting Tuesday, people born in 1981 and earlier will be able to schedule their inoculation against the virus

Parks Canada and Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks dig the washed up Princess M out from sand along the south shore of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. (Nora O’Malley photo)
Rescue attempt costs man his boat off Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

Coast Guard response questioned after volunteer responder’s speedboat capsizes in heavy swells

Al Kowalko shows off the province’s first electric school bus, running kids to three elementary and two secondary schools on the West Shore. (Zoe Ducklow/News Staff)
B.C.’s first electric school bus making the rounds in Victoria suburbs

No emissions, no fuel costs and less maintenance will offset the $750K upfront expense

Road sign on Highway 1 west of Hope warns drivers of COVID-19 essential travel road checks on the highways into the B.C. Interior. (Jessica Peters/Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. residents want travel checks at Alberta border, MLA says

Police road checks in place at highways out of Vancouver area

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Victoria police say the photo they circulated of an alleged cat thief was actually a woman taking her own cat to the vet. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Photo of suspected cat thief released by Victoria police actually just woman with her pet

Police learned the she didn’t steal Penelope the cat, and was actually taking her cat to the vet

Most Read