March 22, 2018

New course demonstrates how Indigenous traditions can be used in current legal system

Law prof Kathleen Mahoney merges past and present to bring law to life
Professor Kathleen Mahoney is teaching a new course at the law school, Indigenous Legal Traditions. She was the chief negotiator for the Assembly of First Nations and primary architect of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the historic Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.

Professor Kathleen Mahoney is teaching a new course at the law school, Indigenous Legal Traditions.

UCalgary Law

Long before Europeans arrived in North America, there was a flourishing, successful, and complex set of Indigenous legal traditions being practised across Canada. This year, University of Calgary law students are learning about these legal traditions and how they can be incorporated into current and future legal systems to make them more inclusive and representative.

Canada is a multijurisdictional legal system, which means there are several different legal systems working in harmony with each other, including civil law, common law, and Indigenous legal traditions. Recognizing where these systems overlap and identifying the differences between them can help students, and practicing lawyers, recognize the valuable tools that each one provides to solve moral, ethical, and legal problems. As second-year law student Hannah Hunter-Loubert observes, “Learning about an independent legal order which is fundamentally different from the one I’ve studied in my other classes allows me to think critically about the other areas of law.”

Combining historical traditions with current events

Indigenous Legal Traditions is a new course, taught by professor Kathleen Mahoney, that engages the historical Indigenous legal traditions with current events to highlight how this area of law is currently used, and where there is potential for growth. The course engages students in a visceral way through guest speakers with experience in the area and a guided field trip to Blackfoot Crossing. By gaining broad experience in this area and engaging with topics in an open and respectful environment, students challenge their assumptions and develop a more comprehensive understanding of how Indigenous law can be used effectively in the future.

This is an emerging area of law in Canada, and there has been a trend in recent years toward incorporating more Indigenous legal traditions into general legal systems. With the publication of the Truth and Reconciliation Report’s Calls to Action, there has been a significant push to promote inclusivity and increase education in the area of Indigenous law. Indigenous law is a comprehensive legal system that touches on all areas, so learning about Indigenous legal traditions is a valuable tool for savvy law students looking to keep their finger on the legal pulse in the next few years and decades. Hunter-Loubert says, “In this class, I am learning the foundational tools to critically and respectfully engage with Indigenous legal traditions, which will be invaluable in any area of law I end up practising.”

Building a more inclusive system

Providing advanced awareness of the existence and utility of Indigenous legal traditions in the broader Canadian legal system is one of Mahoney’s goals for students taking this course. By using strengths from both systems, she observes how there is future potential to “more fully incorporate Indigenous legal traditions into Canadian law in order to make the rule of law more authentic and relevant to all Canadians.”

The University of Calgary unveiled its Indigenous Strategy, ii' taa' poh' to' p, on Nov. 16, 2017. The strategy is the result of nearly two years of community dialogue and campus engagement, and involved the work of a number of people from the university, Indigenous communities and community stakeholders. Recommendations from the strategy are being implemented as we move forward with promise, hope and caring for the future.