AbCamp: 20 years of understanding

Fall on campus is always a busy time for students, but this year is even more so for Kirsty Broadhead, Raj Mallhi, and Alexander Sterling, this year’s student organizers for the 20th annual Aboriginal Cultural Awareness Camp (AbCamp) at UVic Law. The four-day camp, which begins on September 24th, will be held in three different Indigenous communities around Victoria and will be packed with traditional Tsawout, Tsartlip and Esquimalt activities and ceremonies. “Come prepared for an experience. That’s what I always tell the students” says Karla Point, the Cultural Liaison in the faculty of Law. Karla works with local First Nations communities to facilitate the formal and ceremonial aspects of the camp every year. For more information on this year's event, check the AbCamp blog.

That was then…

At the first camp, in November 1995, a group of 24 UVic Law students, five faculty members (including then Dean of Law David Cohen), and 11 RCMP and municipal police officers gathered with Tsartlip elders on their reserve at Brentwood Bay. Organized by law student Ann Roberts, with the help of fellow student (and First Nations RCMP officer) Chris Pallan, the aim of the camp was to bring together lawyers, police officers and Aboriginal people for an exchange of ideas. What came out of it was a lot of learning, healing and new-found respect.

“It seemed to me that there was a great deal of healing going on,” said an obviously-moved Roberts after the camp. “There was respect given and received by all parties.”

While she was an undergraduate student at the University of Calgary, Roberts had heard of a similar camp held by the Peigan and Siksika people of the Blackfoot Nation for the RCMP. With her growing interest in law, she had begun thinking about how the camp concept could benefit those who study and interpret the law. In the first year of the camp there was so much interest from students, faculty and local police forces that there was a waiting list. And for those who attended, there was nothing but praise.

 “The amount of learning that we did was far beyond what was expected,” said Law Dean David Cohen. “By Sunday afternoon it was very clear that, although exhausted, we’d be changed by this permanently.”

This exchange of ideas was not only focused on the law; the cultural learning was also significant. The experience taught Cohen about “how deep and wide the cultural gap is between First Nations people and non-Native people in terms of how they learn and relate to one another.” He cited how participants did not interrupt an elder’s lengthy presentation with questions as a show of respect.

“If I had a student who didn’t ask questions,” explained Cohen, “I might interpret that to mean a lack of attention or a lack of engagement.”

A cultural experience

AbCamp was, and still is, a rare opportunity to learn and be immersed in First Nations cultures in a way that can be life-changing, as it has been for many UVic Law students. Berry Hykin is one such person. A typical, ambitious Caucasian law student with dreams of being a Bay Street lawyer, Hykin attended AbCamp in 2003 and it changed the direction of her career, and her life.

“AbCamp gives you a rare opportunity at the beginning of your legal education to have a hands-on experience and obtain a different perspective on law and its practical aspect,” explained Hykin in an interview in 2014. “It challenges you to see how the law actually affects people in real and profound ways. You carry that perspective with you all the way through law school so it can inform how you approach your studies and how you eventually approach your practice. The impact of First Nations, historically and currently, on our society is so profound. Especially for people going into the legal profession, I think it’s extremely important that this vital part of our community is made tangible through the participatory experience of something like AbCamp.”

This is now…

This year’s AbCamp continued the tradition, and welcomed about half of the incoming student population, along with 15 students from the University of Adelaide, half of whom are Indigenous. As in previous years, there were ocean canoe voyages, traditional sweat lodge ceremonies, pit cooking, singing and drumming, cedar-bark weaving and a lot of group discussions, with this year’s focus on Indigenous legal traditions. The intensive weekend culminated with a feast at the Esquimalt Longhouse on Saturday, September 26th.

This focus on Indigenous culture and legal traditions has been part of the UVic law student experience for 20 years now, and much has changed in that time both within and far beyond the university. When AbCamp started in 1995, there was no official Indigenous presence or office on campus. In 2010, First Peoples’ House was opened as a “home away from home” for Indigenous students. It now employs 11 staff members who run student programs and community outreach.  Many of the local First Nations Elders who oversee AbCamp, including Victor Underwood and May and Skip Sam, are also employed at First Peoples’ House.

Truth and Reconciliation

Many of our faculty engage with Indigenous Law, and with the recent release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, the work of John Borrows, Val Napoleon, and Hamar Foster has become even more critical.  Associate Dean Gillian Calder and faculty member Rebecca Johnson created the blog “Reconciliationsyllabus” to continue discussion of the report in the academic community, specifically in reference to recommendations 27 and 28 which call for a response from law schools to create a mandatory course in Aboriginal peoples, skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights and anti-racism. Recommendation 50, under “Equity for Aboriginal People in the Legal System,” also calls on the federal government “to fund the establishment of Indigenous law institutes for the development, use, and understanding of Indigenous laws and access to justice”.

Jeremy Webber, the Dean of Law at UVic wrote the following in a blog post about the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission:

“Right now, there is not a law school in the country that fully achieves [the aim of bringing to Indigenous laws the kind of seriousness that we bring to non-Indigenous law, so that Indigenous law students can learn to reason with their traditions with the rigour and soundness that we require all our students to bring to non-Indigenous law]. We give our students an excellent training in the Common or Civil Law (as we should). We also teach them the Canadian law with respect to Indigenous Peoples and, in the best programs today, introduce some dimensions of Indigenous legal traditions. But in that last respect we give them, in almost all cases, the barest of introductions.”

Prof. Webber goes on to talk about two of our current faculty who are working on a revolutionary project:

“Val Napoleon, who holds our Law Foundation Chair in Aboriginal Justice and Governance, has founded the Indigenous Law Research Unit at UVic. ILRU originated in a program co-sponsored by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Indigenous Bar Association, funded by the Law Foundation of Ontario. She… developed a methodology through which they and their collaborators work with Indigenous communities to identify resources within the communities’ legal traditions for addressing the challenges they face.”

“Some ten years ago, my colleague John Borrows, now holder of the new Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law at UVic, proposed the creation of a dual-degree program in the Common Law and Indigenous Legal Orders. “Imagine if we could do for the Common Law and Indigenous Law,” he said, “what McGill does for the Civil Law and the Common Law.” He and Val, supported by many others, are now working concertedly to realize that vision.”

(You can find the full text of Prof. Webber’s blog post at

While these initiatives are as ambitious as they are necessary, there remains a program in place at UVic that has been successfully building bridges, understanding and relationships between our students and Indigenous communities for the past 20 years. AbCamp is that positive and critical first step for students to open up pathways to understanding legal cultures that should no longer be pushed to the sidelines of Canadian law. It has been generously supported by the legal community over the years, most recently by Devlin Gailus Westaway, JFK Law, Woodward & Company, Rana Law, Mandell Pinder, the Victoria Bar Association, and the Rotary Club of Vancouver.

The engagement with Indigenous Law, both for faculty and students, remains an integral and indeed growing part of the study of law at UVic.