A Turning Point for Indigenous Law

Reconciliation: Wahkohtowin Conference takes on the challenge of integrating Indigenous and Canadian law

Ben Freeland - 25 September 2017

The University of Alberta Faculty of Law's Centre for Constitutional Studies hosted a landmark conference on Indigenous law and reconciliation from Thursday, September 21 to Saturday, September 23.

Reconciliation: Wahkohtowin brought together scholars across multiple fields, Indigenous Elders and students in the third and last of a series of conferences on reconciliation held across Canada this year.

During the conference's opening ceremony at the Art Gallery of Alberta, the Hon. Richard Feehan, Alberta's Minister of Indigenous Relations, lauded the event as a major turning point in Indigenous-Canadian relations.

"People in universities 50 or 100 years from now will look back at this time as a turning point," he said.

Centrality of Language

At the heart of the conference was the Cree language term wahkohtowin, a word roughly translated as "interconnectedness" and "interdependence" that lies at the core of traditional Cree notions of law and governance.

The word was evoked extensively throughout the conference, as were other Cree terms such as wetaskiwin (meaning "place where we have learned to coexist on the land") and kwayeskastasowin (a Cree cognate for the term "reconciliation" that means "setting things right"), with the topic of discussion frequently returning to the importance of Indigenous language revitalization and the honouring of Indigenous legal concepts by Canadian society and institutions at large.

"When talking about Indigenous law, we're by definition talking about many different cultures, each with its own unique concepts of law and linguistic underpinnings," said keynote speaker Prof. Lorena Fontaine, Indigenous law professor at the University of Winnipeg and noted Indigenous language rights champion.

"True reconciliation can only occur when our languages and our cultures are revived."

Indigenous Law Still Not Taken Seriously

While some of the conference's speakers focused on the importance of language revival and other grassroots mobilization, some zeroed in on how they believe Canadian courts and other national institutions continue to fail the country's first peoples.

Prof. Michael Coyle, an expert on Aboriginal land claims and treaty rights at the University of Western Ontario who spoke during the Friday morning session on Indigenous legal traditions, likened the conversation between Indigenous and Canadian institutions of law and governance to a dysfunctional marriage, with the arrow of blame pointing squarely in the direction of the legal and political mainstream.

"Canadian courts still tend to treat Indigenous law as a sort of exotic oddity and have yet to find a respectful way of interacting with it," he said.

"The main barrier to reconciliation in the legal sphere is that Indigenous laws often seem invisible outside Indigenous communities and organizations. It also represents a failure to recognize that Indigenous law represents more than just the imposition of rules on people - it also seeks to guide people from the inside by recourse to legal, social and spiritual values. This, I believe, is a true strength of Indigenous law that our institutions as a whole have a long way to go in appreciating."

Wahkohtowin Governance as New Political Paradigm

Other speakers focused on instances of wahkohtowin-inspired governance in action. In his lecture on the meaning of wahkohtowin governance, Prof. Matthew Wildcat, cross-appointed UAlberta instructor in Political Science and Native Studies and member of the Ermineskin Cree Nation, pointed to the recent amalgamation of the Maskwacîs (formerly Hobbema) school system across the municipality's four member First Nations (Ermineskin, Louis Bull, Montana and Samson) as an example of such practice.

"As a political language, wahkohtowin represents a move away from Indian Act-type governance," he explained.

"There was a fair bit of pushback to this initiative at the outset, rooted in an understandable fear held by many Indigenous people over a potential loss of treaty rights. But in the end, the Maskwacîs Declaration on Education was a clear case of treaty rights being further empowered by wahkohtowin governance for the betterment of our communities."

CBC Edmonton reporter Anna Desmarais characterized the event as a 'turning point' for Indigenous law. Read her summary of the event here.