Elders, national and provincial leaders, students and scholars launch historic Indigenous law degree


JID student Colby Lizotte addresses the group of Elders, scholars, national and provincial leaders gathered at UVic for the launch of the new Indigenous law program. (Photo: UVic)

The historic launch today of the world’s first law degree to combine the study of Indigenous and non-Indigenous law welcomed the first cohort of 26 students from across Canada and acknowledged the efforts to establish the far-reaching response to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The new law program at the University of Victoria will help Indigenous peoples and Canada build enduring political and legal relationships. It will be applicable to rebuilding economies, environmental management, child welfare, education, human rights, healthy communities and housing. Students will learn how to understand Indigenous legal orders, reason with them, build institutions based on those orders, and design institutions and procedures that work in concert with other levels of Canadian law.

“Our university has a longstanding commitment to reconciliation through our programs of education and research,” says UVic President Jamie Cassels. “While there is still much work to be done, today marks an important step forward. This is a significant day for Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities across the country and around the world and the graduates of this program will help lead the way towards our country’s future.” 

Students of the four-year degree program will participate in mandatory field studies in diverse Indigenous communities across Canada and will graduate with professional degrees in both Canadian Common Law (Juris Doctor or JD) and Indigenous Legal Orders (Juris Indigenarum Doctor or JID.)

The Province of BC included $2.25 million over two years in BC Budget 2018 for the program and is committed to ongoing support.The funding is part of the provincial government’s commitment to work with Indigenous peoples to build true and lasting reconciliation, anchored by the commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

“We have a lot of work to do to transform the colonial legacy present in the policies and practices in our shared legal system,” says Melanie Mark, Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Training. “The Indigenous Law Program at UVic is a remarkable first for Indigenous peoples, Canada and the world. It’s an amazing honour and privilege to be a part of history with the launch of the program. It really is reconciliation in action and answers the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action number 50 to fund Indigenous law institutes.” 

First year JID student Brendan Noyes says he came to UVic from Winnipeg because he believes the program will transcend the differences between Canadian laws and Indigenous legal orders. “We have an enormous opportunity to move forward in the spirit of reconciliation and what better way to heal than to truly understand each other,” he says. 

Senator Murray Sinclair, former judge and chief commissioner of the TRC, says the program establishes the conditions for effective action long into the future: “The leaders of these initiatives, Professors John Borrows and Val Napoleon, have been largely responsible for setting the agenda in understanding and engaging, with rigour and insight, Indigenous law. Their advice had a real impact on our deliberations within the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” 

Borrows and Napoleon, two of Canada’s foremost legal scholars who have been developing the program for many years, lent a personal note to the proceedings, bestowing gifts hand-crafted by relatives to the program’s students and dignitaries. 

Among those recognized at the event were representatives of the McConnell Foundation which made a gift of $500,000 to the program, and Vancity, which was the first and largest donor to date, gifting $1 million. 

“It’s an honour for all of us at Vancity to be involved in this exciting new degree program,” says Tamara Vrooman, Vancity president and CEO. “It offers a clear sign that we are moving forward together, breaking down barriers that have faced Indigenous populations in a colonial system, while building community capacity and community strength.”

Napoleon, as director of the groundbreaking Indigenous Law Research Unit at UVic, undertook a major study of Indigenous Law for the TRC, helping to shape its Calls to Action in 2015. Call to Action #50 in particular reads:

In keeping with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, we call upon the federal government, in collaboration with Aboriginal organizations, to fund the establishment of Indigenous law institutes for the development, use, and understanding of Indigenous law and access to justice in accordance with the unique cultures of Aboriginal peoples in Canada.

The JD/JID program and the proposal for an Indigenous Legal Lodge directly respond to this call. The proposed new Lodge would house the educational programs, the Indigenous Law Research Unit and be a national gathering place for critical engagement, debate, learning, public education and partnership on Indigenous legal traditions as well as a global centre of excellence for understanding, developing and deploying Indigenous legal institutions. 

“Indigenous law is restoring the world’s lawscape—the way that people relate to each other, the land, and non-human life forms,” says Napoleon, JD/JID director. “UVic’s Indigenous Law Degree program will equip our students to build communities of Indigenous legal practice locally, nationally, and internationally, private to public, and beyond. This is the first law degree of its kind, and it’s already rebuilding Indigenous law to meet today’s challenges.” 

Napoleon and Borrows will be giving a public lecture Sept. 25 at 7:30 p.m. in UVic’s Farquhar auditorium called Indigenous law: Today and Tomorrow. (This free lecture has reserved seating. Tickets required). The event will be livestreamed from .

For more information including comments from community leaders and program details, please refer to the backgrounder.  

Photos and video clips are available via Dropbox.

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Media contacts

Val Napoleon (Director of JD/JID program and of ILRU, and Law Foundation Chair in Aboriginal Justice and Governance) at 250-721-8172 or napoleon@uvic.ca

John Borrows (Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law) at Limited availability at jborrows@uvic.ca

Susan Breau (Dean, Law) at 250-721-8147 or lawdean@uvic.ca

Julie Sloan (Law Communications) at 250-721-8167 or lawcomm@uvic.ca

Suzanne Ahearne (University Communications + Marketing) at 250-721-6139 or sahearne@uvic.ca

Click here for the backgrounder.

In this story

Keywords: Indigenous, Indigenous law, National Centre for Indigenous Laws

People: John Borrows, Val Napoleon, Jamie Cassels

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