Engaging in Indigenous Laws

Therein lies the many meanings of witiskiwin

Engaging in Indigenous Laws

Included in the calls to action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (“TRC”) are significant obligations for the legal profession. The TRC calls for the recognition and implementation of Indigenous laws and legal traditions in all areas of work we do as legal practitioners. Indigenous legal principles offer us a guide into how such reconciliation can be approached. Take the place-name of the area where I grew up, Wetaskiwin, Alberta. A variation of the Cree word witiskiwin, it translates into “the place where peace is made,” or “the place where we live on the land together.” A close variation is the word witiscasau, “the place where we become friends.”

More than just a name, witiskiwin is living Cree legal principle. This area is witiskiwin because it is a place where Blackfoot peoples and Cree peoples came together and set out legal obligations on how to live on the land together. It is a place of treaty. Committing to look closely at the story of witiskiwin, there is much to learn about the disputative and resolution legal processes that still exist within Cree and Blackfoot legal orders. This simple act of looking is a small form of reconciliation that opens the imagination to how to further engage in this work.

Making room for the implementation of Indigenous laws in legal practices and legal landscapes is a complex yet exciting task. Like the dedicated practice and commitment made in studying broader Canadian law, Indigenous legal orders require this dedication as well. In doing so, the laws of Indigenous communities offer much wisdom and knowledge that enriches law practice.

Many law schools in Canada have committed to this work. The University of Victoria’s Faculty of Law (“UVic”) is engaged in two projects focused on the resurgence of Indigenous legal traditions. It is currently developing a Juris Indigenarem Doctor program, to offer a joint common law and Indigenous law degree program. Understanding the limitations of teaching Indigenous laws within a classroom setting, part of this proposed degree will be community-based, where students will work within Indigenous communities on projects specific to these communities legal orders. Similarly, UVic’s Indigenous Law Research Unit (“ILRU”) has been engaged in ongoing work with Indigenous communities to substantively explore their legal orders. The ILRU examines legal precedents within Indigenous communities to draw out their deliberative legal traditions.

Of course it must be acknowledged that through their stories, songs, ceremonies, place names, land, art and kinship relations, legal practice has never ceased within Indigenous communities. As the legal profession is invited to engage in this work, we must acknowledge that it can sometimes be challenging, messy and confusing. Indigenous legal orders challenge our concepts of law, legal precedents, and the purposes of the laws themselves. Yet within the burden and excitement of encountering challenges within understanding Indigenous legal practices, lies the many meanings of witiskiwin. Engaging with Indigenous laws allows us to understand new ways of thinking about how to live on and with the land, and how to live with each other.

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