Indigenous law and governance centre at U of A receives federal funding

Wahkohtowin Law and Governance Lodge uses Indigenous legal traditions to support community governance.

A new University of Alberta centre that supports Indigenous law and governance through community-led, collaborative research received a boost on Tuesday.

David Lametti, the federal minister of justice, announced a $135,000 grant for the Wahkohtowin Law and Governance Lodge, an innovative centre that provides support for Indigenous communities and organizations revitalizing their legal and governance traditions.

The new funding will assist the development of the lodge, workshops and Indigenous public legal education strategies. The funding is part of the federal government's $10-million, five-year effort to encourage Indigenous law initiatives across the country.

"The lodge is a great example of an academic institution listening to Indigenous communities and organizations," said Lametti. "Your work demonstrates what can be achieved by better co-ordinating research efforts and community engagement."

While Aboriginal law is rooted in treaties and the Canadian Constitution, Indigenous law looks to legal traditions, principles and processes found in First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities.

The lodge, a collaboration between the U of A's faculties of law and Native studies that was inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action and community demand, received funding earlier this year from the Alberta Law Foundation.

Though the lodge is still in its development phase, U of A Native studies professor Shalene Jobin envisions a space where Indigenous communities can draw on useful resources as they recover and develop their own principled approaches to governance areas such as education, child welfare and working relationships with other governments.

"It's part of resurgence, it's part of self-determination as well," said Jobin, who is co-leading the project. "As a university, we're hoping to support them. It also impacts how they relate to other nations."

In June, the Wahkohtowin Lodge hosted 40 community members and legal leaders to analyze Cree stories for legal principles drawn from the Cree legal tradition. Over the next two years, the lodge will expand on that work as Indigenous communities add to a growing body of laws, legislation and agreements.

The first of four initial projects was the development of a citizenship code for the Aseniwuche Winewak Nation, a distinct Indigenous community in the Grande Cache area that never signed a treaty and hasn't yet been formally recognized by the federal government.

"We are working on rebuilding our own pride in who we are," said Tom McDonald, president of the AWN. "There's a lot of talk about reconciliation. If we truly have respect for each other, reconciliation will come."

"Respect for Indigenous law holds promise for communities marginalized by a legal system that fails to recognize how communities operate," said Hadley Friedland, who is co-leading the project as part of the Faculty of Law. Friedland studied Cree legal principles as a PhD student at the U of A, then went on to the University of Victoria's law faculty, where she helped build a similar Indigenous law institute.

"Your ancestors have been solving problems and organizing themselves and resolving disputes for centuries," Friedland said to AWN members. "That is what all law in all societies is about."