Law School, Untold truths and #TruthAndReconciliation

When he began to raise his voice, I knew that I had been here before. “Stop suggesting we are lying.” We, being the members of my University’s Senate committee. Yet, I never said or alluded to the suggestion that any of the individuals at the table were “lying.” I merely turned the responsibility back onto everyone at the table: If you are saying that you read my submission prior to coming here and you stated that I don’t have to repeat what is in my submissions because you read my submission “thoroughly”, then I expect and demand better from so-called professionals. In other words, why are you asking me questions that can be easily answered by reading my submissions?

I was at a meeting with my University’s Senate Committee over an appeal of a grade. I heard stories about nobody winning these kinds of appeals and stories about how manipulative the experience was especially for students from equity seeking groups (since these are the majority of the kinds of students using these processes).

I should have known better.

The standard to satisfy the grade review process includes, “a significant error or injustice [that] may have occurred”[1] By the very basis that the examination committee accepted my application, I demonstrated the existence of a serious error or injustice. When I proposed a different remedy, however, the examination committee suggested they were not empowered to grant such a remedy and the Senate suggested I was asking them to “change the rules.” On the contrary. I straightforwardly asked the examination committee and subsequently the Senate, to exercise their discretionary power in granting an exception to the rules–the language of the rules and the examination committee’s proposed remedy suggest such discretionary power.

My University sits and rests on unceded Algonquin territory—the nation’s capital. I applied to only two schools because of the schools’ reputation for being social justice oriented schools.[2] But also, I couldn’t afford to apply to more than two law schools and the more law schools you apply to, the more your application costs.

Currently, I am a third year law student. I am disheartened by this entire experience. This experience being the law school experience. I first noticed a downright refusal to accept the untold truths not only my school, but the majority of law schools across Canada hold in their hallways. These untold truths include the stories that myself and peers similar to me carry with them, carry on their shoulders and carry in the blankets of secrecy—the pain, the grief and the burden.

Welcome to the burden of being an Indigenous law school student in an institution designed to erase Indigenous laws and Indigenous personhoods.

Upon the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, my school published a media release almost immediately[3], suggesting that they were committed to Indigenizing the school’s curriculum.

word

Their words indicate one thing but their actions tell a different story.

In the media release, the Faculty suggested that they were also “pro-actively” responding to the issue. Yet, what was the issue? The media release never states what the issue is/was, but I will suggest that it is the lack of Indigenous history, Indigenous initiatives and Indigenous intervention in my school’s curriculum.

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In the 2015 Fall Term, my then-professor talked about only two legal systems existing in Canada. It was for a class on the division of power in our government and much of the course ignored how Indigenous politicians and related leaders were at the centre of constitutional and public law interventions. And when I approached the professor about the error in his statement on the existence of only two legal systems in Canada, he denied it. Classic lawyerly response. Deny. Deny. Deny.

I approached another professor who I thought I could trust to address the comments — or lack of comments — made by the professor and the issue that arose between us: He thought I was calling him a racist, and I thought he was ignoring the issue of structural racism in legal education. As I sat in a room with two other professors who had significant power over me, the mediating professor started off with classic mediation training (hello, first year alternative dispute resolution class). The other professor focused on his own personal experiences with racism. And, I sat there in silence, holding back my tears, thinking, “This isn’t about you.” But I blurted out, “This is ridiculous.” Ridiculous because the professor thought I was personally attacking him, calling him a racist and ridiculous because the mediating professor reminded me of a first year law student roleplaying in their alternative dispute resolution class in January term.

I blame neither of these professors for their inability and lack of training to handle the issues I brought forward to them. Their response, or more accurately their inability to respond to the issue, is plainly a product of their legal education—a package full of falsehoods. Instead, I blame myself in trying to trust the same people that were a product of the fictions created by their profession, their institutions and the fictions that they must uphold, unquestionably; I should have known better.

Ever since I could remember, I have always pushed back on the things taught in classrooms and the actions of people who have power over me. It is how I reclaim the power designed to silence, dismiss and ignore my concerns about who I am, and how others like me, are treated by these systems and institutions.

I attended an elementary school where I witnessed other students being tied to chairs, being forced to sit in piss-filled bottoms, and being told to stand in corners with their elbows bent at 90 degrees with dictionaries resting on their forearms. I remember being called stupid and dumb. By a teacher. I also witnessed teachers or other employees of the school force a student’s head in between his thighs as he sat in a chair in the hallway while facing the wall. I could hear and see the child screaming to be let go. Then, the next memory is the door being shut so I could not witness these acts anymore. This is how law school deals with systemic and institutional racism in the legal curriculum: The door is always shut so others could not and cannot witness the insidious of its racism.

When I told my dad and my mom what my elementary school principal said one day in class, my mom and dad came to school the next day and sat down with the principal. Next, I remember my dad walking out of the principal’s office in frustration. My mom followed behind him. During this office meeting, the principal denied saying what she had said, what I witnessed her saying to our classroom. Despite the fact that I can’t remember what my principal said in class that one day to an almost entirely Indigenous classroom, it didn’t sit right with me. But I still remember and unfortunately, I will never forget how it made me feel.

That day, the chairperson of my University’s Senate committee suggested that I was lying by putting the responsibility back onto them. And through his indignant tone and terse words, I remember all these instances where I spoke up, spoke out and demanded better accountability for people’s actions in, and from, institutions. From elementary school to law school, nothing has changed and sadly, I don’t expect it to change…ever.

While I did claim that my law school was insincere when they advertise(d) themselves as a social justice school committed to principles of truth and reconciliation in this meeting, I also understand that you can’t expect much from institutions thriving on principles of white supremacy and colonization. What good is a law school that says it is Indigenizing the curriculum, but ignores how their institution continuously ignores the history of Indigenous interventions while also simultaneously attempting to ignore Indigenous voices/experiences (i.e., Elijah Harper anyone)? The circle never ends.

More importantly, however, the very basis of this entire process and the comments made by the Senate committee members suggest that my school is anything but social justice oriented.

In order to support my application, I had to submit all documentary evidence in my possession. During finals, I had to seek out this documentary evidence. And, this documentary evidence included supporting letters from my counsellor at the time documenting why I was seeing her (i.e., directly related to the systemic racism experienced at school and the lack of understanding from the Faculty itself). I also submitted prescription receipts documenting my use of highly addictive benzodiazepines. To think of the privacy issues related to this disclosure in order to support my application…mind boggling.

Then, when one of the Senate committee members brought up this evidence, she chose to use the word “discomfort” and I asserted that this experience was more than just a “discomfort.” The entire experience further triggered my anxiety which contributed to my inability to attend classes and hand in assignments (including for this class I originally sought a grade review for). This person’s reply to her own dismissal of my experiences? “I am sorry. English is my second language. I didn’t mean to use the word discomfort.” That is always good to know that people hearing a “final and binding decision” neither speak nor read the language of my submissions in a proficient manner.

Next, this same committee tried to suggest they were/are an “independent” committee but my experience with the Faculty’s examination committee and the Senate’s refusal to address claims of bias and lack of independence has shown me the exact opposite.

When I asked the examination committee to recuse an observing member during the committee’s deliberations, the committee replied that this member was “not a voting member” and this member simply “supported” the committee. Support the committee in what manner? As the University’s Senate suggested that they were transparent with the rules as the rules were/are posted online, this transparency does not actually mean that either the examination committee or the University’s Senate are independent or unbiased. Often times in administrative processes, the decision maker assumes transparency, unbiased decision making and independence are one in the same–if one is transparent, then they are also unbiased and independent. But being transparent is neither synonymous with unbiased and independent decision making nor is transparency the test to satisfying unbiased and independent decision making.

In light of the above, I do demand better of everyone involved. I demand that legal education stop relying on the “add Indigenous content and stir” approach when it comes to Indigenizing the curriculum. I demand that legal and related professionals stop thinking that they are being under attack by an Indigenous student who demands better from everyone involved and who has a stake in legal education/curriculum. Because, trust me, if I had any real institutional or structural power, shit would have changed looooooong ago (and if you are a legal professional reading this and the shoe fits, then so be it Cinderella).

But what can professors start doing tomorrow to help make the law school experience better for their students?

  • Start including non-legal/law related sources as sources of law;
  • Make room to question the foundation of legal principles – inside and outside the classroom;
  • Make the space to make mistakes and learn from mistakes – inside and outside the classroom, and for you, for your students and for people close to you, including your colleagues;
  • Stop taking those who question the classroom experience as a personal attack on you; institutional change is hard but it is not personal; and
  • Start taking responsibility for a commitment to excellence in legal education by not placing the responsibility on the shoulders of your Indigenous students and your Indigenous peers.

Change is hard; change is unsettling. But what change requires from everyone is acknowledging the role they played in the history and in present practice of ignoring and dismissing Indigenous voices and experiences in our legal institutions. And, most importantly, truth and reconciliation means more than just repeating the words as if that is demonstrating commitment to a call to action.

 

 

[1] https://commonlaw.uottawa.ca/en/students/academic-affairs/registration/registration-student-responsibilities/academic-regulations

[2] https://commonlaw.uottawa.ca/en/about/message-dean

[3] https://commonlaw.uottawa.ca/en/news/response-truth-and-reconciliation-commissions-call-action

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