Back to School with a Vision for Reconciliation

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its report in June 2015. Its findings were a profound call to action and provide a vital record for our country’s history and for our accountability as a nation for the wrongs we have committed and the redress that we must make. As lawyers, as representatives of a legal system that has for over a century systematically discriminated against First Nations people, we have a responsibility to shape a more just legal system that encourages and facilitates reconciliation.

This week, a new group of aspiring lawyers will start a new school semester as the first generation of post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission lawyers. The TRC – recognizing that law students are part of future reconciliation efforts in the legal system – said that reconciliation must be advanced at law school so that lawyers “develop a greater understanding of Aboriginal history and culture as well as the multi-faceted legacy of residential schools”. Without that education, lawyers may provide inadequate or inappropriate legal services because they don’t understand the cultural and historical context they’re working in or lack the sensitivity required to address Canada’s history of racism and our failure to treaty Aboriginal people with dignity and respect.

The TRC’s recommendations also provide a road map for some of the reconciliation that we must endeavour to achieve going forward. As lawyers, we must take responsibility for our role in this effort and work toward a more just legal system that recognizes the disproportionately harmful effect our justice system has had on aboriginal people, the exclusion from legal benefits and protections aboriginal people have experienced, and the disproportionate victimization that has been faced in particular by indigenous women and girls.

The TRC’s Recommendation #28  says:

We call upon law schools in Canada to require all law students to take a course in Aboriginal people and the law, which includes the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal–Crown relations. This will require skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.

We hope this guidance will be at the forefront of the minds of legal scholars, deans, students, adjuncts and staff of Canada’s law schools.

One resource for those starting to tease out what teaching and learning “reconciliation” looks like is the Reconciliation Syllabus blog. This blog, written and curated by legal scholars from law schools around the country, and through the hashtag #reconciliationsyllabus, is a place where law teachers are gathering the tools that they need to fulfill Recommendation 28 and to provide education in the law school context that will drive us toward reconciliation.

As a public resource, like the Charleston Syllabus blog (a crowd-expert-sourced resource of readings for educators teaching the history of racial violence in the United States), this form of knowledge sharing can allow people to educate themselves and their students, and to contribute content so education on these subjects are more meaningful and accessible. It can allow educators to reconsider their approaches to subject, question how the law has been taught in the past, and map a way for a superior legal education that will foster inclusion, recognition, and reconciliation. I hope many more lawyers and educators will contribute their suggestions to the blog authors to build this resource for all to use.

This is precisely the kind of effort we must make to move legal education and the justice system toward reconciliation. We hope that lawyers, students and professors continue to contribute their knowledge and share with the next generations of our profession. This first generation post-TRC is being offered the torch and the spirit of reconciliation; we truly hope they seize it.