Oct. 26, 2021

New course helps future lawyers embrace true meaning of reconciliation

Reconciliation and Lawyers course highlights importance of understanding past to make changes in the way we practise law
Students and staff sit in a circle around the UCalgary tipi at the Indigenous Orientation for law students
Chris Wedman

Many believe that to be able to successfully practise law, to be able to be a true advocate for clients, lawyers need to have a strong understanding of the history that shaped our legal system. For lawyers working with Indigenous clients and communities, understanding exactly what happened in Canada’s past, and how it impacted Indigenous Peoples is key to moving forward on the path to reconciliation.  

“It is time for Indigenous laws to be understood and implemented in the conventional legal system to better serve Indigenous Peoples as well as fulfill the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit People (MMIWG2S) Calls for Justice,” says Andrea Menard, who teaches the new Reconciliation and Lawyers course in the Faculty of Law. 

Andrea Menard

Andrea Menard in teaching the new course, Reconciliation & Lawyers, at the law school.

Courtesy Andrea Menard

Understanding past is key to improving profession 

Menard, who is the Indigenous Initiatives Liaison at the Law Society of Alberta, understands the importance of training future and current lawyers on how to represent clients appropriately and properly in the courts of law. She is Métis from the abolished Red River Settlement, is a Métis Nation of Alberta citizen, and knows the value of being able to teach students exactly what happened in Canada from an Indigenous — and personal — perspective. 

“I’ve dedicated my life to helping out Indigenous Peoples. I saw what happened to my family and I wanted to figure out why there was such a divergence from the white or Western side of my family to the Métis side... they were completely two different worlds,” explains Menard. 

Not only does the course tackle the past illegal and genocidal practices Indigenous Peoples were forced to endure and how this created severe distrust in the Western legal system, but students also examine current legal practices, laws, and policies and their discriminatory impacts on Indigenous Peoples, and how to reverse assumptions and embedded biases to become an ally and advocate for all clients, especially Indigenous clients.  

Preparing lawyers to interact with clients in culturally appropriate ways 

“My legal education is a huge privilege, but it has also felt pretty uncomfortable and alienating at times,” says third-year student Erin Ramsperger, who is a member of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte of the Haudenosaunee Six Nations Confederacy. 

“I enrolled in the Reconciliation and Lawyers course with the hope of finding a decolonial learning opportunity that would challenge some of the oppressive practices and biases inherent in a colonial legal system. Lawyers need to be prepared to interact with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis clients in a culturally appropriate and trauma-informed manner, and this course will help to meet that need. 

This course challenges the status quo, helps to illuminate personal biases, and encourages everyone to look inward to learn to do better. 

Teaching methods aimed to break down barriers 

The format of the course differs from traditional law classes, including a regular sharing circle which helps break down barriers to learning and understanding. Technology is also limited in the course to encourage students to learn how to become active listeners, and become accustomed to the slower pace of life common in Indigenous communities. 

“Laptops create barriers,” explains Menard. “When working with Indigenous clients and communities, you’re often not going to have a laptop in front of you, so being able to listen and contemplate what you’re hearing, to make a connection heart to heart, allows for deeper understanding and connection.” 

For third-year student Gurjot Sekhon, having space for self-reflection is key.   

“I wanted to take Reconciliation and Lawyers to get a better understanding of Indigenous law and the Indigenous perspective of common law. The self-reflection nature of this course helps people understand the impact of colonization and how they can be a part of the reconciliation process. 

I think this course is very important for law students to take in reducing biases and stigma and becoming a well-informed lawyer that can adequately represent Indigenous people.