World's first Indigenous law program launches with historic and emotional ceremony


JID student Colby Lizotte, who is Cree Métis from Fort Vermilion in Alberta's far north, addressed the gathering. “My hope for the program is not just that it increases the number of Indigenous lawyers in Canada, but also reworks the system." Photo: UVic Photo Services.

In a historic and emotional ceremony on Sept. 25 to launch the world's first Indigenous law program, Elders, national and provincial leaders, scholars and members of the University of Victoria community gathered in First Peoples House to welcome the first cohort of 26 students who have come from across Canada to attend the ground-breaking program.

Students of the four-year JD/JID degree program will participate in mandatory field studies in 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).

They will help Indigenous peoples and Canada build enduring political and legal relationships. Their skills 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.

As drumming signalled the beginning of the ceremony in a Coast Salish welcome, guests took their seats and Songhees Elder Dr. Skip Dick provided the territorial welcome. “This is a wonderful step in history, from the dark side to the light side. It’s really wonderful that this is happening in our time,” he said.

The Dean of Law, Susan Breau, spoke about the magnitude of the day, and the years of planning, work and support that brought the JID program to life. “We finally have hope that the world is actually changing.”

The Province of BC has pledged $2.25 million over two years for the program and 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.

Minister Melanie Mark at the JID launch event
Hon. Melanie Mark, Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Training, spoke at the Sept. 25 ceremony. Photo: UVic Photo Services.

“It’s an amazing honour and privilege to be a part of history with the launch of this 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,” said Melanie Mark, Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Training.

Minister Mark set the tone for the rest of the ceremony with her passionate and emotional speech. She is Nisga'a, Gitxsan, Cree, Ojibway, French and Scottish, and also the first female First Nations Member of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia and the first female First Nations Cabinet Minister.

"We have a lot of work to do to transform the colonial legacy present in the policies and practices in our shared legal system," she said, then addressed the new JID students directly.  “You’re trailblazers; you’re the first, but you won’t be the last. You’ll bring our laws together; one heart, one pathway, one nation.”

“There are so many people in this room that want to paddle the canoe with you, but it won’t be easy. Change is never easy,” she said.

JID student Lisbeth Haigh described the emotion of the ceremony in her MyUVic Life blog post: “When we were asked to stand, what immediately resonated was the depth of responsibility that had been bestowed upon us. The weight of expectation, hope, and endurance was impressed upon me in almost a physical way that is now carried deep inside. It is not a weight of burden; it’s born from purpose that lives far beyond me. It is a responsibility of honour, and I remain deeply humbled to the task.”

President Jamie Cassels spoke of UVic’s longstanding commitment to reconciliation through our programs of education and research. “While there is still much work to be done,” he said, “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.”

When JID student Colby Lizotte took the podium, she spoke on behalf of the JID students about what the program means to her, personally, and to her community. “I have experienced first-hand the need for culturally appropriate and adequate legal resources. I wish to become a tool to bridge the gap and improve communication between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian criminal justice system.”

Val Napoleon in the First Peoples House
Borrows and Napoleon (pictured), 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. Photo: UVic Photo Services.

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. 

The ceremony was closed with a song by John Borrows and Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark, and the doors of First Peoples House were opened for a blessing of the food that was to follow, by Tsartlip elder May Sam. The ceremony was followed by a salmon feast on the lawn outside of First Peoples House.

Later in the evening, Val Napoleon and John Borrows presented a free public lecture, emceed by Shelagh Rogers. In "Indigenous law: Today and tomorrow," Borrows explored the lessons learned from Salish law drawn from the land and Napoleon took a storytelling approach to explore the future of Indigenous law.

“It was the most moving day I have ever experienced,” said Dean of Law, Susan Breau.

Melanie Mark embraces Val Napoleon
(L-R) Professor John Borrows, UVic President Jamie Cassels, Honourable Minister Melanie Mark and Professor Val Napoleon. Photo: UVic Photo Services.

Val Napoleon, as director of the ground-breaking Indigenous Law Research Unit at UVic, undertook a major study of Indigenous Law for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 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. 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.
Val Napoleon, JD/JID director
Large group of JID students posing outside of the First Peoples House
The first cohort of JID students with professors Napoleon (far left) and Borrows (far right).

Event recordings

You can watch both the launch event and the evening lecture "Indigenous law: Today and tomorrow" on YouTube.


In this story

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

People: John Borrows, Val Napoleon, Jamie Cassels

Publication: The Ring

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