François Crépeau: Teaching justice

"... I want my students to understand that law is a tool of power and it can be used well - or not."

As holder of the Oppenheimer Chair in Public International Law, François Crépeau currently teaches public international law and the first year course in the foundations of Canadian law, though his teaching has also included a broad selection of courses in human rights, migration, civil liberties and Canadian constitutional law.

In addition to his teaching at McGill, Université de Montréal, and Université du Québec à Montréal, François has taught courses and developed curricula across Quebec, Canada and Europe as a visiting professor, guest lecturer and in his role with public advocacy organizations.

What do you want students to take away from your classes?

Since my preoccupation with law generally is human rights, the dignity of the person, and making sure that law contributes to making our society a better place for everyone, I want my students to know and understand that our societies are fractured. There are people who are worse off than others, and some can be extremely vulnerable, such as minorities, refugees and aboriginals. Once they understand that, we look at the consequences of this vulnerability, asking questions like "How do you deal with it?" and "How does law, along with economic and political and social forces, create such situations?"

As we begin investigating such issues I also want them to ask "How does the law contribute to the solutions?" In my first-year Foundations of Canadian Law course, I want my students to develop the conceptual tools that will help them think critically about these legal issues. They need to understand that law is not simply plumbing – it’s an intellectual framework to examine society’s ills and to challenge assumptions so they can think critically about whatever they are going to learn or practice in the future.

Many of my students initially think that the law is simply about helping the poor against big corporations or helping those corporations extend their power. It’s about so much more than that, so dispelling these preconceptions is a first step for me.

The second important step is to get them to understand what law can do and how it can work alongside many other forces. As a tool, law never solved any issue by itself, so they learn to see it as a tool of empowerment of individuals, groups and societies, right up to the global level, since international law now touches every aspect of our lives.

Thus I want my students to understand that law is a tool of power and it can be used well - or not. Nazi Germany had plenty of laws, but where was the justice?