Law schools: Aboriginal law crucial

Aboriginal law growing in complexity, importance, lecture series hears

Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie ensures all students are acquainted with aboriginal law. Photo: Jess Flower

The message Thursday night was clear: indigenous and aboriginal law is tricky, and it’s only getting more difficult.

A panel discussion held at the Halifax Central Library discussed ways to improve the quality of life for indigenous peoples through legal reform while still respecting their background.

The panel consisted of Karen Drake, a Métis law professor at Lakehead University, Naiomi Metallic, a member of the Dalhousie board of governors and Halifax lawyer specializing in aboriginal law, and Sherry Pictou, a Mi’kmaq activist and PhD student at Dal.

Metallic’s presentation was a sobering one. She highlighted the harsh realities facing the 600 First Nations communities making up a population of about 300,000 on reserves across the country. The Indian Act, which is the governing text for aboriginal affairs, notably excludes federal laws in the area of essential services on reserve. In other words, it’s completely discretionary with no standardization, she said.

Metallic went on to describe how the lack of oversight on reserves has let discretionary judgment warp the laws and has led to poor living conditions on and off reserves. The way to fix it, she said, is through a heightened understanding of aboriginal law and strengthened judicial system on reserves, beginning with law school students.

The audience at the indigenous speaker series looks on as Lakehead University’s Karen Drake presents. Photo: Jessica Flower

Drake explained the importance of adapting law school curriculums to meet the needs of aboriginal communities.

“Most law schools don’t focus enough on aboriginal law,” she said. ”At Lakehead each student has to take a minimum of two courses focused on aboriginal law, one on the laws of indigenous people and also aboriginal laws (ones set out by the government). We’re one of the only ones doing this in Canada.”

Dalhousie’s Schulich School of Law also puts a priority on aboriginal law.

Constance MacIntosh, director of the Health Law Institute and associate professor at Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie, said that aboriginal law is peppered throughout the mandatory courses, making up 30 per cent of the constitutional law course. MacIntosh said that the school has integrated aboriginal issues quite aggressively over the past decade, and with good reason.

“Aboriginal law is a very complex area and has quite frankly grown over the years in complexity, which makes it extremely dangerous for a lawyer to venture into without a proper foundation from when in law school,” MacIntosh said.

She went on to explain that aboriginal law touches all other realms of law.

“There is a growing realm of corporate law and maybe two years down the road an advising lawyer at a private company has a case dealing with an aboriginal issue — they really have to understand aboriginal issues to be able to guide their client properly,” MacIntosh said.

MacIntosh and Drake firmly believe that Aaboriginal law is of paramount importance to students. Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, Drake explained, has said that aboriginal issues will dominate the courts over the next decade.

“New lawyers need to know about this.”