Exploring Indigenous legal traditions

Law students club shares learnings through online magazine that blends art, poetry and scholarly texts

As Canadian law schools make efforts to incorporate Indigenous legal traditions into their curricula, one McGill Law student group is sharing learnings with others across campus -- and well beyond.

The result: an online magazine, Rooted, that explores Indigenous law through a novel blend of scholarly texts, art, and poetry.

The idea for the magazine “started with us being passionate about sharing what we felt really privileged to be learning at McGill, with students who didn’t happen to be at the Law faculty,” says co-editor in chief Sarah Nixon. Like other law schools across the country, McGill’s Faculty of Law has responded to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 2015 calls to action by bolstering the place of Indigenous legal traditions in its program.

Sarah Nixon

“I think a lot of young people who are socially conscious and engaged -- and who read the news and are interested in reconciliation -- would be really interested in the things that we get to learn,” Nixon says.

Contributors to the magazine include academics, activists, artists, and community leaders.

From blog to magazine

Nixon and another law student, Larissa Parker, launched Rooted last year. Both were members of the Indigenous Law Association / Association du Droit Autochtone, a student club of the Faculty of Law. The association for several years had published a blog on topics such as Language and Law, and Food Sovereignty.

“We thought the blog was really cool, and wanted to see it continue,” says Nixon, who grew up in a suburb of Thunder Bay, Ont., on the western shores of Lake Superior.

In her second year at McGill, Nixon volunteered to take on leadership of the blog, and reached out to others for help. Parker, who had done a Master’s thesis at University of Oxford on the impact of climate change on Maori people in small island states, stepped up to work with Nixon.

Together, Nixon and Parker decided to go beyond the blog format -- which was geared to law students and researchers -- and aim for a broader audience. They envisioned a multimedia publication that would weave in insights from community leaders, artists, and academics to reflect diverse perspectives on Indigenous law.

Indigenous law is “not found in cases and legislation like in Western types of traditions. Instead, Indigenous law consists of legal orders which are rooted in Indigenous societies themselves – in stories, languages, and relationships” Larissa says. “We really wanted a publication that kind of brought all of that together,” Sarah adds.

Roots of a name

The magazine’s name is meant to reference the source of Indigenous law: principles that derive from observation of the relationships between plants, animals, and land. The name was inspired by one of the students’ professors, Aaron Mills, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Constitutionalism and Philosophy.

In the opening essay in the magazine’s inaugural edition, Prof. Mills wrote:

Rooted illustration

‘In distinguishing between constitutional kinds, I prefer to speak of rooted constitutionalism and not indigenous constitutionalism... [I]ndigenous peoples are far and away rooted constitutionalism’s exemplars, but as a kind of constitutionalism, rootedness is available to anyone willing to sustain it. My hope is that enough of the world’s peoples will adopt it within a timeline that, respecting the urgency of anthropocentric global warming, allows for the continued viability of humans and of creation as we know it.’

“It is, of course, an honour to see one’s ideas taken up and given new life by those who will soon lead,” Prof. Mills says. “What an amazing gift, as a professor, to be surrounded by this kind of enthusiasm for a better world. Rooted is a fine example of why I’m optimistic that when these students and those they support and interact with lead, indigenous law will begin to inform all levels of decision-making in Canada.”

Spreading the word

More than a dozen students soon joined Nixon and Parker on the magazine’s editorial team.

Among the associate editors last year was Brandon Montour, who grew up in the Mohawk community of Kahnawake, across the St. Lawrence River from the island of Montreal. With Parker having graduated recently, Montour -- entering his second year in law school -- is now co-editor in chief, alongside Nixon.

With its mix of poetry, art and scholarship, the magazine “truly encompasses, I think, what Indigenous law is all about,” Montour says.

Brandon Montour

As part of the first cohort to take the Indigenous legal traditions course at McGill, Montour says, he found that “there are many different sources of traditional law, whether that’s through elders, through storytelling, through customs -- things that we learn as we go through life” in a First Nation community.

Brandon’s Mohawk name -- Tehsenrehtanion -- means ‘the one who spreads the word, or the messenger,’ he says. Studying political science as an undergrad at Concordia University, “I started to consider what law school could mean for me as a First Nation person. And I really started to think about my Mohawk name: What are the odds that I was given this name, and I want to go out there and spread the word about our challenges, our issues, our celebrations, and who we are as Mohawk people.”

Land Back and climate change

Montour helped Nixon, Parker and the rest of the team reach out to more than 100 potential contributors across Canada and abroad during the past year. That effort paid off in the magazine’s second edition, published this August, which focuses on the “Land Back” movement and includes perspectives from Indigenous communities across North America, as well as from Peru, Guatemala, and as far away as New Zealand.

One topic covered in the magazine is how climate action intersects with the Land Back movement.

“Indigenous people, wherever they are, are the first to experience climate change, particularly because of their connection to the environment,” says Parker, who is now training in environmental law with a firm in Toronto. “I think Indigenous people are probably the least responsible for climate change, and will experience it disproportionately.”

Larissa Parker

In studying the cultural, social, and spiritual impacts of climate change on the Maori people of the Cook Islands for her Master’s degree, Parker became passionate about those effects. She went on to law school in part to learn what human-rights law could do about them.

“Indigenous law, I would argue, is one of the key ways we can figure out how to solve climate change,” she says. “I think Indigenous people have a lot of knowledge on what to do, on how to tackle it. And then there are the legal issues of providing redress: What are governments responsible for? They should definitely be doing more.”

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