Dalhousie introduces new specialization in Indigenous law

·3 min read

Law students at Dalhousie University in Halifax can now earn a certificate in Indigenous law.

Assistant professor Naiomi Metallic said the new specialization at the Schulich School of Law is a step forward as institutions recognize Indigenous and Aboriginal law "as credible and legitimate areas of legal study."

"There's more work for us to do," she told CBC Radio's Information Morning, "but it's putting our law school, I think, on the map in terms of addressing our [Truth and Reconciliation] responsibilities and also being a leader in Aboriginal and Indigenous law."

The first cohort of students will graduate this spring with the new juris doctor certificate in Aboriginal and Indigenous law.

Students will study how federal and provincial laws interact with Indigenous people, as well as learn about section 35 of the Canadian Constitution, which outlines Aboriginal treaty rights.

"We also have courses now that teach about Indigenous peoples' legal orders and how to engage with them respectfully and some of the exciting methods that are being developed to help revitalize Indigenous legal orders in Canada," said Metallic, who is the chancellor's chair in Aboriginal law and policy at Dalhousie.

Some of the electives courses cover Mi'kmaw legal traditions and the residential school system.

Law can be a tool for emancipation

While Dalhousie already offers a mandatory first-year course in Indigenous law and a course on the Constitution, this certificate will allow students to take upper-level courses on the subject.

Metallic said this kind of high-level training is needed now more than ever as work is done to revitalize Indigenous laws in Canada. Treaty rights have also been front and centre in Nova Scotia recently with the start of several rights-based moderate livelihood fisheries last year.

Stephanie VanKampen
Stephanie VanKampen

As much as the law has been used as a way to oppress Indigenous communities in Canada, Metallic said it's also used as a tool of emancipation. One example, she said, is the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to implement.

"We study the current law, we critique it, but I keep trying to give students tools and to think about legal arguments in a way that can advance the law," Metallic said.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has called on law schools across Canada to teach students about the history and legacy of residential schools, the treaties and Aboriginal rights as well as the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples.

Metallic said the university's Truth and Reconciliation Commission committee has spent the last five years working toward those goals.

Still, she said she's always amazed how little first-year students understand about Indigenous people and the law when they start.

"As we tell our students, the law touches on almost virtually every area of interaction between Indigenous peoples and the state and also Indigenous peoples' own legal orders, and so it is so key for future lawyers to realize that," she said.