John Borrows, winner of 2019 Canada Council Molson Prize


- Suzanne Ahearne

Borrows. Credit: UVic Photo Services

John Borrows, one of Canada’s foremost law scholars and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law at the University of Victoria, is the winner of the 2019 Canada Council Molson Prize in social sciences and humanities. The prize honours contributions to Canada’s cultural and intellectual heritage.

Borrows’ life and work has centred around working with Indigenous people throughout Canada to help them revitalize their legal and governmental systems, traditions and languages as they repatriate their inherent powers of self-government and treaty relations.

A leader in the “great transformation” of Indigenous legal research

UVic President Jamie Cassels describes him as “a leader in the great transformation that has occurred in Indigenous legal research over the last 20 years.” Borrows, who is Anishinaabe/Ojibway and a member of the Chippewa of the Nawash First Nation in Ontario, led the initiative to bring the teaching of Indigenous law into law schools in Canada.

World’s first joint Indigenous law degree at UVic

These initiatives led Borrows to co-found (with Val Napoleon, Law Foundation Professor of Aboriginal Justice and Governance) UVic’s visionary joint Indigenous law degree program, which launched in Sept. 2018. Students will graduate with degrees in both Canadian Common Law (Juris Doctor) and Indigenous Legal Orders (Juris Indigenarum Doctor). President Cassels says Borrows’ leadership and dedication “will have a lasting impact on the Canadian legal system for generations.”

Drawing law from the land

In his nomination letter to the Canada Council, Cassels describes Borrows’ contribution to Anishnaabek tradition and non-Indigenous practices of scholarly inquiry as “profound.” His writing and teaching sheds light on how Indigenous peoples’ laws are formed, drawing on different sources such as custom, deliberation, stories, songs, dances, language, legislation, treaties, interim measures agreements, constitutions and contracts. “Most prominently,” Cassels notes, “he has shown how Indigenous peoples’ natural and social environments are crucial ‘texts’ for interpreting Indigenous law. His work helps broaden the understanding of how the land, water, plants, animals, insets, birds and ecosystems can be ‘read’ to help reconcile Indigenous and other human communities with one another and the earth.” It’s a process Borrows refers to as ‘drawing law from the land.’

The importance of subtlety and restraint

Crucial to an understanding of his work is the principle that “nuance is sacred.” Borrows told the Canada Council that he is cautious of single stories, over-generalizations and polarizing viewpoints. “Elders and other teachers have stressed that subtlety, restraint, and refinement are necessary to practice, write and teach in this field,” he said.

Borrows is a Fellow of the Trudeau Foundation (2006), Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (2007), a recipient of the Indigenous Peoples Counsel from the Indigenous Bar Association for honor and integrity in service to Indigenous communities (2012). In 2017 he was named the Killam Prize winner in Social Sciences by the Canada Council for the Arts for his substantial and distinguished scholarship and commitment to furthering our knowledge about Indigenous legal traditions.

Two prizes of $50,000 each are awarded annually to distinguished Canadians, one in the arts and the other in the social sciences or humanities. Molson Prizes are funded from a million-dollar endowment given to the Canada Council by the Molson Family Foundation. The award is administered in conjunction with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

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Keywords: Indigenous, law, award

People: John Borrows

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