The First Steps of Reconciliation
Last week the Queen’s Law Students’ Society (LSS) honoured the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
After many discussions—both formal and informal—across the law school, the student body voted to allocate $25,000 to create an Aboriginal student entrance scholarship on March 24, 2016. The administration will match the amount to establish a $50,000 perpetual endowment fund. This decision was made through the highest-attended student vote of the year—and quite possibly in Queen’s Law history. With four options on the table, the student body chose to make an important statement with the funds: Indigenous students are welcome here.
The previous night, students who attended the LSS General Meeting unanimously voted to endorse a letter written by the Council of Canadian Law Deans in response to the TRC’s Calls to Action. The letter highlighted the Council’s commitments to the Calls to Action, particularly regarding recommendation #28:
We call upon law schools in Canada to require all law students to take a course in Aboriginal people and the law, which includes the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal–Crown relations. This will require skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and antiracism.
At the LSS General Meeting, the students also unanimously voted to create a Reconciliation Committee mandated with responding to the TRC Calls to Action; reviewing LSS policies and activities; and working with the faculty, LSS Core, and the LSS Aboriginal Student Representative to ensure that steps are taken by the LSS to think more deeply about its commitment to reconciliation and the implications of this commitment moving forward. The Committee will also look beyond the boundaries of the law school to work with the Provost’s Truth and Reconciliation Task Force in the upcoming years.
“Reconciliation” is a concept that the Government of Canada, Canadian society, and Aboriginal peoples are all working towards understanding. From a legal perspective, courts have grappled with this term, altering its meaning from time to time to serve their aims. The late Justice Vickers reviewed the development of the term reconciliation in the trial decision in the Tsilhqot’in Nation case which set out the framework for the SCC’s groundbreaking land title decision. He concluded that “[i]n an ideal world, the process of reconciliation would take place outside the adversarial milieu of a courtroom.”
As the Canadian government is taking steps towards understanding reconciliation, the Queen’s Law community is also engaged in the same process. This engagement is important not only because we are citizens of a country dedicated to reconciliation, but also because we are part of the Canadian legal community—a community that has recognized the importance of reconciliation and the TRC Recommendations and has publicly expressed its commitment to acting on the Calls to Action.
“Likewise, we cannot rely on formal institutions to lead every step, in whatever forceful a manner, to address divisive and oppressive attitudes.”
As members of both the Queen’s Law community and the law societies taking part in this process, it is essential for us to understand the history of Canada. A history dating back to the first contact made between settlers and the original inhabitants of this land. A history involving trading and the building of relationships followed by broken promises and the genocide of a culture—through the White Paper, the Indian Act, the Indian Residential School System and the continued oppression of peoples. Legal institutions and devices—Treaties, federal laws, and Crown policies to name a few—played a strong role in writing this history and they must likewise play a strong role in righting it. Once the sources of the wounds that have constrained our country are understood, we can work towards healing together, and we can build new relationships based on truth, justice, respect and recognition.
The pursuit of reconciliation cannot be based upon prejudiced attitudes, achieved only through legislation, or undertaken out of fear. Likewise, we cannot rely on formal institutions to lead every step, in whatever forceful a manner, to address divisive and oppressive attitudes. Reconciliation requires efforts from each and every individual to recognize past wrongs, whether we played a direct role in them or not, and to forge and maintain meaningful, respectful relationships on an institutional as well as an individual level.
As a community of students, we have taken great strides in honouring our commitment to reconciliation. We now have the opportunity to continue learning about building relationships based on respect, understanding and justice, and we can learn a great deal from the First Peoples of this land in the process.
As Justice Murray Sinclair put it: “Reconciliation is about forging and maintaining respectful relationships. There are no shortcuts.”
Congratulations on these first steps, Queen’s Law. It will not be easy and we have much to learn together.
Sheida Rezapour is a Staff Writer for Juris Diction.