Canadian Bar Association – Aboriginal Law

May 11, 2023

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Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinabe people who have lived on and cared for this land for thousands of years.

I would first like to say thank you to everyone who is focussing on Indigenous issues here at this conference. I am proud to see all of you here committed to the path of reconciliation.

To advance reconciliation, we need people in all fields to understand how their actions impact Indigenous communities, how we live and the way we shape our country.

I applaud what you have accomplished already, and how you work to improve fairness, justice and equality under the law.

Today, I want to look forward. Because although we have come so far, there is still much to accomplish in building a country of equal opportunity for everyone. A country where we face challenges together. A country where reconciliation is a part of our national fabric.

Over the years, I have seen the evolution of our legal system as it relates to Indigenous peoples.

In 1981, I was part of the negotiating team on behalf of Inuit that contributed to the patriation of the Canadian Constitution. Back then, First Nations, Inuit and Métis were all lumped into one group called “aboriginal peoples.”

However, our approach, and our responsibility, as Indigenous leaders was to share how we are, in fact, distinct peoples with unique identities, languages, cultures, governance systems and history. Finally, through Section 35 of the Act, we achieved recognition of three distinct Indigenous peoples—First Nations, Inuit and Métis—and affirmation of the rights and treaty rights of Canada’s first peoples.

We continue to see the impact of this decision. Just last week, First Nations, Inuit and Métis leaders met with His Majesty King Charles the Third, only days before the Coronation, marking yet another important step forward for Crown-Indigenous relations.

Even with this recognition, Indigenous peoples still struggle today to be heard and to implement the spirit of treaties, which were seen as static documents instead of living ones that could be reviewed as context changed and time passed. This has led to disagreements, renegotiations and even court battles.

For Indigenous peoples, who already lived through policies that stripped away language, culture and identity, trust in our most important institutions has eroded. And now, our work is to rebuild it. And legal professionals play, and will continue to play, a big role.

One of the ways we can all rebuild this trust is by answering the calls to action as outlined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We also rebuild by educating ourselves not only about the rights of Indigenous peoples, but also about the full and true history of Canada, the good and the bad.

I understand that the Canadian Bar Association has partnered to create on-line resources to educate lawyers on the history and realities of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.

Your education also extends to conferences like this one, where you can hear about the legal battles Indigenous peoples face, including surrounding self-governance.

A few weeks ago, I travelled to Tuktoyaktuk, in the Northwest Territories, alongside the German president. We listened to community leaders, who detailed the damage coastal erosion is causing, at the rate of a metre lost every year.

And we listened as Nellie Cournoyea, former premier of the Northwest Territories, and the first Indigenous woman to hold that position, gave an impassioned plea that solutions must come from within, not imposed by those who do not understand the context of the day-to-day life in the community.

Self-governance is more than a legal mechanism. It is a sign of trust and respect for Indigenous values. It’s important for managing, caring for and protecting our natural spaces, as Indigenous peoples have been stewards of this land for centuries. And it is vital for self-determination.

For all of us, we need to include and consider Indigenous knowledge in all aspects of decision-making for their homelands. And we have seen some progress already, with many agreements between governments and Indigenous communities to work together on issues of justice, land management, climate change mitigation, education and much more. 

Back in Tuktoyaktuk, community leaders are partnering with organizations to bring together Indigenous and scientific knowledge, to combat the real and everyday impact of climate change. This is not unlike what you’re doing here, bringing together the knowledge of Canada’s legal system with the lived realities and traditions of Indigenous peoples.

It is a way of living in two worlds.

Mi’kmaw Elder Albert Marshall had a word for this. In the Mi’kmaw language, it is called

Etuaptmumk [Etu-op-too-mumk] or Two-Eyed Seeing.

Two-Eyed Seeing is defined as learning to see the strength of Indigenous knowledge from one eye, while seeing the strength of western knowledge from the other. And learning to use both eyes together, to benefit everyone.

I learned this lesson very early on, having grown up in two worlds myself: the western world of my father, who was not Indigenous, and the Inuit world of my mother and grandmother.

Knowledge exchange between all cultures is essential, as it builds respect and understanding of reconciliation. And involving Indigenous peoples give them the opportunity to continue to work on their own success.

Earlier this year, the University of Victoria held a convocation ceremony for a cohort of graduates earning a unique law degree that combines the study of Indigenous and non-Indigenous law. The university is no stranger to fostering Indigenous involvement in the legal community, as it formed partnerships in Iqaluit to help establish the Akitsiraq Law School in 2001. This legal education program for Inuit students, along with the newly established law degree at the University of Victoria, are models for leadership. They acknowledge that Indigenous laws, traditions and framework has a place in our justice system.

These are the types of programs Canada needs to get Indigenous peoples more involved and to ensure that more non-Indigenous peoples understand these vital issues. You also have a role to play to encourage more Indigenous peoples to pursue law as a career.  

Why is this important? 

Because we need your diverse perspectives, and we need the diverse perspectives of other communities, so that our country can continue to evolve and do better for generations to come.

Our justice system is a human system. When we recognize mistakes, we move to correct them. The change we seek, the change we need, lies in our most trusted institutions, and it lies with professionals like you.

I hope you will continue to work to maintain balance, fairness and open communication with all Canadians.

I’d like to leave you with a word in Inuktitut: ajuinnata. It’s an important concept for me and my people. It means to never give up. It’s a commitment to action, no matter how difficult the cause may be.

I have great faith in you and everything that you will accomplish for Canada in the spirit of ajuinnata.

Thank you.