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

Just Posted

Grand Forks Fire/Rescue volunteers attack a hillside fire from top to bottom Tuesday, May 18. Photo: Laurie Tritschler
Brushfire erupts at rural West Kootenay home

No one was hurt in the fire, according to Grand Forks/Fire Rescue

Grand Forks Fire/Rescue volunteers doused a hillside fire late Monday night, May 17. Photo: Laurie Tritschler
Grand Forks Fire/Rescue puts out hillside fire

No one was injured after a campfire got out of control below Columbia Drive

Michelle Jacobs receives her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Coast Capri Hotel on April 28, 2021. The pop-up clinic was hosted by the First Nations Health Authority. (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)
126 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health over the weekend

There are 22 individuals hospitalized due to the virus, and 13 in intensive care

Map: BCWildfire Service
UPDATE: Human-caused wildfire burning near Castlegar

The McCormick Creek fire started Sunday

A prowling coyote proved no match for a stray black cat who chased it out of a Port Moody parking lot Friday, May 14. (Twitter/Screen grab)
VIDEO: Little but fierce: Cat spotted chasing off coyote by Port Moody police

The black cat is seen jumping out from under a parked car and running the wild animal out of a vacant lot

A forest of dance-protesters outside the BC Legislature on April 11. These participants were doing the Dance for the Ancient Forest in support of the Fairy Creek blockade and against old-growth logging. (Zoë Ducklow/News Staff)
Arrests begin at Fairy Creek blockade on Vancouver Island

Five protesters arrested as RCMP begin to enforce injunction

A thunderstorm pictured in Fraser Valley in 2021. (Black Press Media/Jaimie Grafstrom)
Wildfire concerns sparked after 320+ lightning strikes blasted B.C. yesterday

Approximately one-quarter of the province is currently listed as being at moderate risk of fire

A restaurant server on White Rock’s Marine Drive serves customers on a roadside patio. Indoor dining and recreational travel bans have been in effect since late March in B.C. (Peace Arch News)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate falls to 411 cases Tuesday

360 people in hospital, up slightly, two more deaths

The Banff National Park entrance is shown in Banff, Alta., Tuesday, March 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Minister asks Canadians to camp carefully in national parks as season starts

Kitchen shelters in Banff National Park closed, trails on Vancouver Island will only be one-way

Names of those aboard the ship are seen at Komagata Maru monument in downtown Vancouver, on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. The City of Vancouver has issued an apology for its racist role in denying entry to 376 passengers aboard a ship that was forced to return to India over a century ago. Mayor Kennedy Stewart says discrimination by the city had “cruel effects” on the Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims aboard the Komagata Maru, which arrived in Burrard Inlet on May 23, 1914. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Vancouver mayor says sorry for city’s role in turning away South Asians in 1914

Kennedy Stewart has declared May 23 as the annual Komagata Maru Day of Remembrance

A crew of WestCoast WILD Adventures employees tackled an onslaught of litter left at the ‘Locks of Love’ fence at Wally Creek on May 2. (Anne-Marie Gosselin photo)
Litter woes consume popular ‘Locks of Love’ fence on B.C.’s Pacific Rim

Popular view spot near Tofino plagued by people hanging masks and other unwanted garbage

Vincent Doumeizel, senior advisor at the United Nations Global Compact on Oceans, as well as director for the Food Programme for the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, pulls up some sugar kelp seaweed off the French coast in April 2020. He was the keynote speaker during the opening ceremony of the inaugural Seaweed Days Festival. (Vincent Doumeizel/Submitted)
Let’s hear it for seaweed: slimy, unsexy and the world’s greatest untapped food source

Experts talks emerging industry’s challenges and potential at Sidney inaugural Seawood Days Festival

Troy Patterson, a Cadboro Bay 15-year-old, got a virtual meeting with B.C.’s environment minister months after he started an online petition calling for construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline to stop. (Jake Romphf/News Staff)
B.C. teen’s 23,000-name Coastal GasLink petition gets him an audience with the minister

15-year-old Saanich high school student and George Heyman discussed project for about 30 minutes

Most Read