Convocation: Val Napoleon

- Thomas Winterhoff

Val Napoleon made UVic Law history last spring by becoming the first person to earn a PhD degree from the Graduate Program in Law and Society since it was established in 2004. Her doctoral dissertation—“Ayook: Gitksan Legal Order, Law, and Legal Theory”—has now earned her the University of Victoria’s Governor General’s Gold Medal.

This honour is presented annually to a student in a master’s or doctoral degree program on the basis of an outstanding GPA and thesis or dissertation. Napoleon, whose PhD studies were supervised by Professor John Borrows and Professor John McLaren of UVic Law, will receive her award at the June 2010 convocation ceremony.

Napoleon is of Dunneza, Cree and Saulteaux heritage and is also an adopted member of the Gitksan, an Indigenous people of northwestern British Columbia. She worked as a community activist and consultant in northern BC for over 25 years, specializing in health, education and justice issues. Napoleon defended her dissertation in April 2009 in the Gitksan community of Gitanyow, with Gitksan and settler people in attendance. She says it was invigorating “to talk about Gitksan law in front of Gitksan people,” many of whom she interviewed during the course of her research.

Her dissertation explored and articulated the Gitksan legal order, laws and legal theory, as reflected by a groundbreaking Aboriginal land title case: Delgamuukw. Gitksan people devoted decades to the preparation and litigation of Delgamuukw, going through the initial trial proceedings, taking the case to the Appeal Court of BC and then finally bringing it before the Supreme Court of Canada in 1997.

As part of her PhD research, Napoleon investigated whether protracted engagement with Canadian law had undermined the Gitksan people’s own conflict management systems and whether it had an impact on internal relationships. Her examination of Delgamuukw offered fresh perspectives on Gitksan law and, more broadly, on how Indigenous legal traditions can be practically considered in shaping the political and legal relationships between Canada and Indigenous societies.

“Doctorates in law often focus on doctrinal studies of Canadian law’s treatment of Indigenous issues as opposed to Indigenous legal theory or law,” says Napoleon. “I called on legal anthropology and a number of other disciplines to help me develop the dissertation and conduct the research.”

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Keywords: convocation, student life

People: Val Napoleon

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