LLM student examines how land-based learning can help revitalize Indigenous law

Lindsay Borrows drawn to UAlberta’s Faculty of Law by its top-tier Indigenous law scholars

Helen Metella - 16 November 2020

Lindsay Borrows wants to help lawyers, judges, law professors, law students and other interested parties understand how the land we live on can be a vibrant legal resource.

“I think we’re too focused on the written text in our legal reasoning in Canada, and being so narrowly focused we’re missing out on an incredibly deep and rich resource in the very land around us for making better decisions,” says the new master’s student at the University of Alberta Faculty of Law.

“(The land can help us) create more harmony in Canada for everyone, not just for Indigenous people but for settlers and immigrants and for the environment itself, for the animals and the trees. In Anishinaabe law, these beings have the right to be protected and so if we’re learning from the land, we’re better situated to take care of it.”

As an example, Borrows explains one of the lessons she’s been imparting to law students at numerous Canadian faculties of law in Ontario since 2015, when she began co-teaching an Anishinaabe on-the land camp for four days each September.

In addition to introducing law students to stories, ceremonies, drumming and singing, the course includes discussions on how in Indigenous culture laws are derived from the land itself.

“We show students you can reason by way of analogy, not just by written precedent but by looking to the maple tree, seeing how it freely gives sap, wood, shade and oxygen and how it foliates,” says Borrows. “It’s a lesson in citizenship. The maple tree is this very important presence in the community, but it gives all these gifts and asks only for a healthy enough habitat so it can continue to give us its gifts.”

While there are many studies about how Indigenous land-based learning can inform other streams of education, says Borrows, there are only a handful that apply to the discipline of law. She wants to change that by posing the question, how can land-based methods of learning contribute to the revitalization of Indigenous laws?

Previous experiences

A citizen of the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation in southwestern Ontario, Borrows was prompted to pursue a career in law by a love of her community and by family members who “viewed law as a way to make positive change in the world.”

In 1993, her great uncle, Howard Jones, was chief of the Neyaashiinigmling reserve (a.ka. Cape Croker, south of Tobermory, Ont.) when he and Francis Nadjiwon successfully defended their treaty rights to fish in their territories. Her father, John Borrows, is a renowned professor who has taught Indigenous law at universities in Canada, the U.S and Australia, and is currently at the University of Victoria.

Borrows herself is well known for her peer-reviewed academic work of creative non-fiction, Otter’s Journey Through Indigenous Language and Law (2018, UBC Press), which shows how revitalizing Indigenous languages around the world has helped revitalize Indigenous law.

Borrows also has a decade of hands-on experience connecting Indigenous and Canadian laws. After completing her JD, she worked for West Coast Environmental Law, a nonprofit group strengthening legal protection for the environment through strategies that bridge Inidgenous and Canadian law. She has also worked with UVic’s Indigenous Law Research Centre as a lawyer and researcher.

Faculty of Law scholars

Borrows’ research is being supervised by Associate Professor Hadley Friedland, whose work on Indigenous stories as law is foundational in the field. But Borrows also chose this Faculty for her graduate studies because of Assistant Professor Darcy Lindberg’s work on community-based practices, Assistant Professor Joshua Nichols’ research in Aboriginal Law, and Assistant Professor Anna Lund’s writing on how to bring Indigenous traditions into corporate commercial law.

“For such a small Faculty, it’s so progressive and exciting that it’s really connecting to these latest trends in revitalizing Indigenous law,” says Borrows.