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March 19, 2018 | by  | in News |
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UVic to Offer World’s First Degree in Indigenous Law

A new law programme is set to be on offer at the University of Victoria in Canada, UVic. It will be the first of its kind, offering students the chance to intensively study both Indigenous and non-Indigenous law.  The programme builds on what UVic has been doing for a number of years to further the education of students in the field of Indigenous law. Students taking the course will graduate with two degrees, one in Canadian Common Law and one in Indigenous Legal Orders. The expected yearly intake for the degree is 25 students.

The implementation of the UVic programme follows a report from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the residential school system. Canada’s residential school system was part of an “aggressive assimilation” campaign in the 19th and 20th centuries, in which indigenous children were removed from their families and sent to boarding schools, where many faced both emotional and physical abuse. The residential school system was part of a wider policy plan to “eliminate aboriginal people as distinct peoples,” and to “integrate them into the Canadian mainstream” against their will.

As part of the reconciliation, the Commission says the development and application of Indigenous law is “an element of a broader holistic strategy” to deal with the effects of the assimilation campaign. The Commission’s mandate is to rebuild relationships with First Nations.

Jeremy Webber, Dean of Law at UVic, says the idea behind the new programme is to empower indigenous lawyers and better inform lawyers working with indigenous communities. Webber says there is a long-standing demand from First Nations for more power in governing their own affairs.

One of the significant components of the UVic program is the field work that students get the opportunity to do. For the past 20 years, UVic has held law camps for students at the beginning of the year. UVic law camps give first year students the opportunity to stay with an indigenous community, where they are able to talk to elders and members of the host community about their experience of the law, both Indigenous and state. It gives students the chance to learn about the culture, traditions and history of the Indigenous Peoples, as well as to discuss contemporary experiences and issues.

Dr Carwyn Jones, Senior Law Lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington, had “tangential” involvement as the UVic programme was developed. He also completed his PhD at UVic.

Dr Jones endorses the importance of this field work, as it provides support for indigenous communities, while giving law students an understanding and appreciation for the circumstances of indigenous communities and their traditional law.

Dr Jones elaborates that a lot of Canadian law students enter their degrees without much contact with indigenous people, and working with a community gives these students a more comprehensive sense of the challenges facing Indigenous Peoples.

“The key part of the new programme is that it will provide students with another set of tools to deal with legal issues. The common law provides us with one set of tools, and a way of approaching disputes and problems that arise, but there is also another set of tools…that the indigenous legal traditions provide as well.”

UVic’s mainstream law degree (the equivalent of the New Zealand LLB) will have to undergo changes to accommodate the joint degree programme. As Dr Jones explains, there will be a cohort of students —  whether they are doing the Indigenous law degree or not — who will benefit from the implementation of the new Indigenous law degree. UVic will be better positioned to teach the mainstream law students about Indigenous law and traditions, meaning they will come away with better appreciations and understandings of indigenous legal traditions.

This reporter sat down with Dr Jones to discuss whether New Zealand could benefit from the introduction of a similar programme.

The programme at UVic has developed over a period of time and builds on the work they have engaged in previously, such as running their law camps. Dr Jones says there would be a lot of work involved for New Zealand law schools to get to a point where they could offer a similar programme.. He explains that a programme like UVic’s would likely look a bit different in the New Zealand context.

“I think there is huge value in having that kind of comparative perspective and having that joint degree program like UVic are proposing, so you get to really critique each legal system.”

Dr Jones says we are at a point where the New Zealand legal system needs to engage with tikanga Māori as law itself, and that “we are going to need to figure out how to best prepare our students for that”. He explains that there is a real question around how to go about this in a way that is “authentic and appropriate in the context of a law school that is not set up to teach tikanga Māori…it is really important to think about how to do it in a way that is not doing any violence to the tikanga itself”.

Dr Jones says it is important that law students studying in New Zealand understand that tikanga is a living legal system that continues to operate contemporarily. He explains that while it may be “diminished in its sphere of influence, it is very much still alive and operational, and does develop and change to meet the needs of communities in the same way that any legal system does…it isn’t something that is fixed or frozen in 1840”.

It is also important that judges and lawyers in New Zealand have the understanding that tikanga is a system of law based on principle and precedent. In New Zealand, courts are increasingly engaging with tikanga concepts.

Dr Jones says the ability to draw on another set of tools is something of use to all law students, and it would be really valuable to move towards something like that here in Aotearoa.

“We’ve got a lot to learn from [UVic’s] experience…we are moving in a direction where we might be able to do something like this.”

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