This month, 50 members of the Law Society of Alberta tried to wriggle out of taking a free, five-hour course on Indigenous cultural competency. Using tropes borrowed from the American far-right, a vocal minority of LSA members denounced mandatory training as “political indoctrination” and “a brand of wokeness.”
Alberta’s law society requires, as do most across the country, that lawyers take professional development courses annually. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #27 asks lawyers to learn about the history and legacy of residential schools, UNDRIP, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal–Crown relations. So, the LSA proposed that every member take a free course, called “The Path: Your Journey into Indigenous Canada” or face penalty of suspension.
The Path “was designed to help Canadians increase their Indigenous cultural understanding in a Canadian context,” according to the law society’s website.
The resistance of a handful of litigators to learn about Indigenous realities shines a light on the racism and arrogance that Indigenous nations often face when they engage with a legal system that is, too often, slanted against them.
Meanwhile, more than 400 lawyers and other Albertans with law-related backgrounds wrote a letter in support of maintaining the cultural competency requirement.
In a vote, 2,609 lawyers roundly trounced the LSA’s racist minority of 864, voting to uphold mandating its members educate themselves.
They may be vocal, but there are positive signs that their beliefs and values are deeply out of sync with the heartbeat of this country.
Just this year, more than 2,000 people signed up to deepen their understanding of Indigenous rights in Canada through RAVEN’s Home on Native Land learning series. This series is part of RAVEN’s education mandate, which supports their efforts to level the playing field by fundraising for legal defence funds to provide access to justice for Indigenous Nations who are in court to protect land, air and water for future generations.
RAVEN’s President Jeff Nicholls said that RAVEN wholeheartedly supports public education, and education within the legal profession, especially on issues of Indigenous rights and law. “RAVEN has promoted Indigenous-focused education for lawyers, judges, and really anyone through our Home on Native Land learning series,” he said. “Thanks to the advocacy of Indigenous peoples and their supporters, the law of Canada has changed; the legal profession needs to change with it to embrace the new reality of reconciliation and respect for Indigenous laws.”
We’d dismiss Alberta’s resistant lawyers as colonial antiques, however, we can’t forget they wield influence. Many of these professionals practice law on behalf of the very governments and corporations who routinely face down Indigenous nations in court.
We’ve seen their hand in the notorious delay and outspend tactics that are employed to exhaust Indigenous claimants — many of whom are forced to abandon the pursuit of justice simply because they can’t sustain expensive and lengthy litigation.
Take the experience of our partners, Beaver Lake Cree Nation. Since they filed their original statement of claim in 2008, the Alberta nation has faced motions to strike, a steep climb through three levels of court, and an appeal, all before spending even one day at trial making their arguments in support of their groundbreaking Defend the Treaties challenge.
It’s disturbing, to say the least, that lawyers sitting on Alberta’s benches are crying foul because they are now being “forced” to confront some of the horrors of our past. It’s disturbing that one of their leaders, Calgary-based lawyer Roger Song, denies that genocide occurred, claiming Canada has no history of discrimination.
The unstoppable Indigenous resurgence that is breaking up old institutions and remaking our country may terrify some. But, RAVEN’s success is an indicator that there are many more individuals, educators, and businesses who are ready to take on the important work of building better Indigenous-settler relationships. Through interviews with some of the finest legal minds in the country, together with illustrative cartoons and lessons, taking up Home on Native Land equips an active majority to loudly participate in the courageous conversations that are clearly still needed in this country — and reveal how great the support for Indigenous justice and an inclusive future really is.
Andrea Palframan is a climate activist and director of communication and engagement with RAVEN