2021 Indigenous Speaker Series focuses on news from current headlines

Guests to discuss Trans Mountain, policing, COVID-19, fishing rights and more

Helen Metella - 19 February 2021

There’s a breaking-news feeling around this year’s Indigenous Law Students Speaker Series at the University of Alberta Faculty of Law, but it’s constructive, hopeful news that’s in the spotlight.

The theme of the five-day speaker series is “Our Story 2020: Indigenous Legal Responses to An Historic Year.” It’s a week of noon-hour discussions examining national and local current events — including water and coal mines, COVID-19 health measures, pipeline construction, fishing rights and sovereignty — from Indigenous peoples’ perspectives.

However, each day’s theme and speakers were chosen with the intent of discussing how Indigenous Peoples are asserting themselves, and not about how they’re oppressed, says Justin Hjlesvold, chair of the association (ILSA) that produces the Speaker Series.

“This year, the focus is on how Indigenous People have tried to work within the law, to create change for themselves, not depending on the government or justice system to ensure that change on our behalf, although that needs to happen, too,” he says.

“The Mi’kmaq fishery is a great example. We were told we had a right to this, and we asserted our legal rights as a people. That was met with a tremendous amount of negativity. There’s a gap in what our entitlements are under the law and our sovereignty and what the public understands our rights to be. This series attempts to address that gap, to educate the public.”

Public welcome

To that end, the goal for this year’s Speaker Series is to expand the audience to include as many people as want to attend, in addition to the usual audience of law students, lawyers, activists and Indigenous community members.

A virtual format made necessary by the pandemic’’s health guidelines is allowing ILSA to invite Canadians from across the country to listen in on a discussion, or several, any noon hour during the first week of March.

“We want everybody, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to better understand the legal issues that face those communities,” says Hjlesvold. “We’re excited to have a diverse audience show up, excited to hear their questions. We invite anyone who is interested in these issues to attend and to invite their families and communities.”


Among the speakers are Leroy Little Bear, a Blackfoot researcher and professor who co-founded Canada’s first Native Studies department at the University of Lethbridge and was a founding director of the Native American Program at Harvard University.

A panel on Indigenous health includes Dr. Danièle Behn Smith, second in command at the Office of the Provincial Health Officer in British Columbia; Reagan Bartel, director of health for the Métis Nation of Alberta; and Bonnie Healy, health director of the Blackfoot Confederacy.

“We’re hoping these speakers can illustrate some of the challenges Indigenous communities have faced asserting their rights over data, their health and their own borders during this pandemic and their success stories,” says Hjlesvold.

Darcy Lindberg, associate professor in University of Alberta Faculty of Law, will speak about Indigenous water sovereignty and Alberta's coal development policy, from a Plains Cree perspective. The talk will discuss Plains Cree legal relationships to water generally, and specifically to source waters in the Rockies. It will also tie into Alberta's decision (and rescinding of its decision) for open coal mines in the Rockies, leading into potential responses by Indigenous communities.

Paul Seaman, lawyer with Gowling WLG, “was counsel on for the Tsleil-Waututh Nation on the Trans Mountain matter — the duty to consult case where Trans Mountain was halted due to insufficient engagement with Indigenous people. People in Alberta, all they saw was the hit to their pocketbook and the economy,” says Hjlesvold.

“It’s more complex than that so this is (a discussion) of special interest to everyone in our province.”

Naiomi Metallic, is a Mi’kmaq legal scholar who will speak about Mi’kmaq ownership of their fishery and their efforts to responsibly regulate it.

The ILSA Speaker Series runs March 1-5 at 12:00 MST each day. SPEAKER BIOS and SESSION LINKS.