Val Napoleon, who earned her own law degree after becoming a grandmother, is instrumental in supporting the resurgence of Indigenous legal order in Canada. (UVic photo services)

Val Napoleon, who earned her own law degree after becoming a grandmother, is instrumental in supporting the resurgence of Indigenous legal order in Canada. (UVic photo services)

Indigenous law being steadily rebuilt in Canada, says B.C. university professor

‘We don’t have to argue that Indigenous people have law anymore’

Three years after welcoming the first students to the Indigenous law degree at the University of Victoria, Val Napoleon says Indigenous law is being purposefully rebuilt and gradually recognized in Canada.

“We don’t have to argue that Indigenous people have law anymore,” she said. “Some lower court judges are already drawing on Indigenous law principles as sources of reasoning, not as evidence, but as a principled way to think through cases.”

A huge contributor to the shift has come from the Indigenous Laws Research Unit, co-founded by Napoleon almost 10 years ago, long before she thought an Indigenous law degree could be possible. The research unit works directly with Indigenous communities to articulate and modernize their laws.

Ten years ago there was a fear about Indigenous law. People didn’t understand that it has the same goals as Canadian law — safety, fairness, dignity, inclusion, she said. “It was too scary. It was a black hole.”

READ MORE:Federal government commits $9.1 million toward UVic Indigenous Law building

But as the research unit has produced reports on Sepwepemc citizenship, Coast Salish child and caregiver nurturance law, water laws, Tsimshian inter-nation co-operation and dispute resolution, Anishinaabe community governance and more, the non-Indigenous judiciary has been able to see that, Indigenous law is just law.

Then came the joint law degree in 2018, the first of its kind in the world. Students earn a full Canadian law degree, juris doctor, and an Indigenous law degree, juris indigenarium doctor — indigenarium is a tongue-in-cheek word that plays on the judiciary’s love of Latin words — over four years. Most law degrees take three years.

For each core course — property, torts, contracts, etc. — is taught with Canadian common law and Indigenous law side by side. For example, Napoleon teaches Gitksan and Canadian land and property law in one double course. Anishinaabic constitutional law, Cree criminal law, Tsilhqot’in contracts and Coast Salish torts are each learned beside their Canadian counterparts.

Now the first cohort of students are embedded in field school, a year away from crossing the stage, and they’re already being snapped up by law firms and booked by their communities back home.

“We can’t keep up with demand,” Napoleon said about the hunger from communities wanting to articulate their law into practice, and from the judiciary who need training and knowledge and lawyers. The research unit also does a lot of workshops with lawyers, government workers and other organizations.

READ MORE: UVic launches historic Indigenous law program

One thing she and her colleagues across the country are determined to do is ensuring that Indigenous law is scrutinized to make sure it meets the highest standards of law. That often means making sure all people are represented in the law, and that it upholds the dignity of all people.

“When people feel that they don’t matter to the legal institution of their world, when they don’t believe they are rights holders, that their legal issues don’t matter, that’s when you have problems. Because what are people going to do when they don’t matter?” she asks.

“We have to be able to say our laws uphold human dignity because if it doesn’t our society will fragment over time.”

For more news from Vancouver Island and beyond delivered daily into your inbox, please click here.


Do you have something to add to this story, or something else we should report on? Email: zoe.ducklow@blackpress.ca. Follow us on Instagram. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

IndigenousLaw & JusticeUVicWest Shore

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The Chilliwack Chiefs played their 2020-21 BCHL season finale Sunday against Prince George at the Chilliwack Coliseum. The junior A team will open 2021-22 with an American Hockey League team calling Abbotsford home. (Darren Francis photo)
Chilliwack Chiefs viewing Abbotsford AHL arrival as an opportunity

The junior A BCHL club hopes to strike up a friendly relationship with the unnamed Canucks affiliate

Chilliwack’s Allie Thiessen enjoyed a productive season for the Central Washington Wildcats women’s softball squad, and earned GNAC All-Academic status. (Central Washington U graphic)
Chilliwack’s Allie Thiessen earns All-Academic status in Great Northwest Athletic Conference

The women’s softball star at Central Washington University had one of the highest GPAs on the list

Trina Hunt’s remains were found in the Hope area on March 29. Her family is asking the public to think back to the weekend prior to when she went missing. (Photo courtesy of IHIT.)
Trina Hunt’s family appeals to killer to step forward after remains found in Hope

Cousins also ask Hope residents to think back to weekend Port Moody woman was in the area

Chilliwack real estate may finally be moving towards a buyers' market, according to the local real estate board. (Paul Henderson/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Chilliwack real estate sales forecast to see the highest increase in B.C. in 2021

BCREA second quarter forecast predicts 51.6% jump in sales this year, 20% rise in prices

Corey Neyrinck was sentenced on Jan. 19, 2018 to seven years in jail for sexually touching two young girls and creating child pornography. He was released on Dec. 4, 2018. As of May 11, 2021 he faced two counts of failing to comply with a prohibition order. (File)
Chilliwack man sentenced to 7 years for sexually touching underage girls back in custody

One-time school board candidate Corey Neyrinck charged with violating internet prohibitions

Still from a video of a townhouse fire on South Sumas at Vedder Road in Chilliwack on May 9, 2021 before Chilliwack Fire Depatment crew arrived. (Submitted)
VIDEO: Grass fire leads to townhouse blaze in Sardis on Mother’s Day

Chilliwack Fire Department warns that matches and lighters can have ‘devastating’ effects

Keith MacIntyre - BC Libertarian
Penticton’s Keith MacIntyre new leader of the B.C. Libertarian Party

The Penticton businessman was voted in by members of the party on May 8

RCMP are searching for Philip Toner, who is a 'person of interest' in the investigation of a suspicious death in Kootenay National Park last week. Photo courtesy BC RCMP.
Man sought in suspicious Kootenay death found in Lake Country

Philip Toner is a person of interest in the death of Brenda Ware

Vernon North Okanagan RCMP reported to 287 mental health calls between Jan. 1, 2021, and May 1. (Black Press files)
‘It’s not the police’s responsibility to deal with mental health calls’: Vernon RCMP

RCMP remind public to take care of mental health and well-being, while better solutions are sought

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Thompson Rivers University campus is in Kamloops, B.C. (KTW file photo)
Thompson Rivers the 1st B.C. university to supply free menstrual products

The university will offer the products this September

Fraser Health is using ‘targeted’ vaccination clinics in high-risk areas of the Lower Mainland. (Fraser Health photo)
B.C.’s COVID-19 decrease continues, 515 new cases Tuesday

426 seriously ill people in hospital, up from 415 Monday

The site of Sunfest, Laketown Ranch, will be open for camping this summer. (Citizen file)
Sunfest country music bash won’t be shining on B.C. in 2021

Annual Vancouver Island Festival cancelled due to COVID-19, along with Laketown Shakedown

Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation elected chief councillor Moses Martin, who was also Chantel Moore’s grandfather, speaks to media in Port Alberni on Aug. 16, 2020, during a visit from NDP leader Jagmeet Singh following the police shooting of Chantel Moore. (Elena Rardon photo)
Mother of 2 shot by police in critical condition, says B.C. First Nation chief

Community ‘devastated’ by third member of 1,150-person Vancouver Island nation shot in less than a year

Most Read