Criminal Law Journal no. 1: Indigenous methods

The following posts will feature a journal assignment that I finished for my first-term, first-year criminal law class. Some journals may have been edited to be more suitable for a blog post and/or for my readers. The readings are informed by experiences as an Indigenous woman (obvs) in a Canadian law school.

The introductory readings for this class conversed with each other in a unique way. First, Shin Imai’s article stressed the importance of working with community members in a collaborative method. Imai argued that this collaborative method could be attained through “unteaching” or undoing the lessons taught in traditional legal education frameworks. Second, Duncan Kennedy’s article explored the ways customary law school classrooms are manifestly and latently organized to produce a specific hierarchal outcome, like a sort of socialization. Third and final, the speech by the Right Honourable David Johnson explored a “new definition of the lawyer as professional.” From my perspective, these articles conversed to a particular type of law student, and as an Indigenous woman in law school, I did not feel like these articles spoke to me. Rather, I felt these articles spoke to a particular type of law student.

The concept of collaborative methods, which Imai emphasizes in his article, is not new to me. This idea of working together to address community needs is something that I recall vividly while growing up in Northern Ontario and also while living and working in Northern Alberta. When I was reading this article, I found myself agreeing with everything that Imai was saying. Yet, I felt like it did not speak to me because a community-based and collaborative way of living within Indigenous communities is necessary for survival. I have experienced this method prior to law school.

I saw this necessity to work together while living and working in Northern Alberta as well as growing up in Northern Ontario. Even though I did not feel like this article spoke to me, it did remind me of the importance of working with communities and community members to achieve objectives specific to communities. I learned the importance of this lesson growing up in my own community who was often a host community to flood evacuees from more northern communities. As a child, I saw my mother, cousins and aunts give up their time to cook food for evacuees and sometimes open their own home when no hotels were available.

When I lived and worked in Northern Alberta, the community experienced both a flood and an oil spill in less than a three-month span. In order to survive these events, it was vital that the community worked together. I also witnessed community members share the game they hunted. Sharing resources like traditional meat is essential in Northern Alberta as the cost of regular (westernized) food is high and the cost of healthy (westernized) foods are even higher. In the end, through my experiences I have learned that our individual interests are less significant than the interests of the overall community when it comes to solving problems that affect everyone. The article did not speak to me but it reminded me of the importance of community-based and collaborative methods, or methods that I would correctly call Indigenous methods. After reading Kennedy’s article, I felt it built upon Imai’s work.

Comparatively, the pieces spoke to law students as each wrote from their own experiences either as a student, professor or legal scholar. Kennedy’s piece, however, went a step further by questioning the larger systems surrounding legal education. Additionally, while Imai’s piece talks about unteaching, Kennedy’s piece, arguably, emphasizes the need to unlearn conventional methods of both teaching and learning. Unteaching, for Imai, requires modifying how knowledge is gained and the need to change class hierarchies. Still, I believe unteaching is only achievable through unlearning. Kennedy describes how students reify legal education hierarchies which remain unquestioned once they have graduated and started their careers. For me, this article reminded me of the importance of critically assessing institutions, how they inform each other and how they maintain other systems like race, gender or class.

The last article by Hon. Johnson is the most unsettling article of the three. As an Indigenous woman, I do not identify with being Canadian. History tells me that I am not supposed to be here. Canadian policy even stated that Indigenous people could not attain a post-secondary education unless they gave up their Indian status. Policy even stated that Indigenous people could not hire lawyers. Did they hope that we would not become lawyers too? Additionally, Hon. Johnson’s comments about gender disparity becoming a thing of the past are false. We have to ask ourselves, what kind of women are being accepted into law school, graduating law school, being hired by law firms or being hired by law schools. As a result, this was the piece that I felt least connected too, both as an Indigenous person and as a woman.

The readings for this class caused me to reflect on why I applied to law school. At one pre-law school presentation, I remember an Indigenous peer articulating the importance for Indigenous offenders in the criminal justice system to have Indigenous representation. I think it is dangerous to tell future Indigenous lawyers this is something we have to look forward too. We can play other roles too. As future lawyers, we need to use our knowledge and expertise as Indigenous peoples to hopefully change the systems, like the criminal justice system, so that we do not have to look forward to just representing Indigenous offenders. As an Indigenous woman, I feel we are here to do something more.

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