Student organizers of the 2023 Queen’s Conference on Indigenous Reconciliation (QCIR) – the first held in-person since the pandemic – were “blown away” by the positive response from attendees, speakers, sponsors, and the public. A joint initiative of Queen’s Law and the Smith School of Business, “the conference was way more successful than we could ever have dreamed,” said co-chair Sinead Dunne, Law’24. “I’m very proud of our team and what we were able to accomplish, working across time and geographic zones.”
With triple the attendance of previous years (a total of 183), the two-day event included panels, workshops, and keynote speakers, focusing this year on “Sustainable Pathways to Reconciliation”: how to make reconciliation durable, and what is needed for that to happen. The conference was open to all Queen’s students and community members, including their children.
“We wanted to ensure that it would be accessible to parents, so we invited them to bring their kids along if that would help,” explains Dunne. “Also, we really do believe that children – who represent the future – should be welcome in these spaces. It spread a lot of joy to people!”
The conference began with a welcome from Grandmother Kathy Brant, a Mohawk of the Haudenosaunee Six Nations Confederacy, followed by introductory words from Law Dean Mark Walters and Wanda Costen, Dean of the School of Business.
Addressing the conference theme of sustainable development goals, one of Canada’s leading advocates of Indigenous international trade, Wayne Garnons-Williams, Law’90, teamed up with Centre for International Sustainable Development Law researcher Eva Wu. Their joint presentation focused on “Indigenous Treaties with Canada: Obstacles or Opportunities to Realizing the SDGs in Light of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples across Canada.”
In 2021 Garnons-Williams had played a key role in negotiating the Indigenous Peoples Economic and Trade Cooperation Arrangement (IPETCA), a unique agreement which helps identify and remove barriers to Indigenous peoples’ economic empowerment and their participation in international trade. To date it has been endorsed by Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Taiwan, and their respective Indigenous working groups. Last November, Queen’s Law became the first Canadian law school to pledge support for IPETCA’s principles and objectives when it signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the International Inter-Tribal Trade and Investment Organization (IITIO), which Garnons-Williams heads.
Speaking at the 2023 QCIR event, Garnons-Williams described the current work by an interim board comprising Indigenous and government members from each of the four nation states “hammering out the initial infrastructure for how IPECTA is going to operate. This will enable them to move forward on getting real international trade initiatives in a way that is respectful of sustainable development goals,” he said.
“We’ve had so many warnings from international environmental agencies that we must change the way we conduct business,” the impassioned speaker continued. “Now we can lead by example, conducting international trade in an environmentally responsible way, respecting our culture, language, and land!”
Garnons-Williams also delivered the conference’s opening, keynote address. Noting that he wore “many hats” he said that he would speak as chair of the Sixties Scoop Healing Foundation of Canada, a survivor-led volunteer organization established in 2019 through a federal, court-approved national settlement to distribute federal grants for health, healing, and wellness programs to serve survivors of the Scoop and their descendants.
Beginning with his own, heartbreaking story of being removed by Saskatchewan police and Social Services staff from his single-parent mother – who’d been forced to choose between keeping him or his elder sister – Garnons-Williams went on to examine the wider scope of institutional racism in Canada, historically and currently. He described the rise of the residential school system in the 1880s as an attempt by the federal government to isolate Indigenous children from their own culture and religion, and assimilate them into “Canadian” culture.
The term “scoop” refers to the practice begun in the 1960s of forcibly removing children from Indigenous families and either placing them in non-Indigenous, adoptive families or into the foster home system. Like the speaker, these children were denied any further contact with their birth families. By the 1980s, when this government policy had been discontinued, the proportion of Indigenous children in government care across the western provinces ranged from 40 to 70 per cent.
“Today, we’re living with the legacy of institutional racism as expressed through various political and economic means,” Garnons-Williams continued, noting that more than half of children in foster care in Canada are Indigenous, but account for only seven per cent of the child population. “In Manitoba right now, 90 per cent of kids in foster care are Indigenous. This is unacceptable,” he declared.
Among potential tools to address this issue are the United Nations (UN) Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People and Article 30 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which acknowledges the rights of children from ethnic minorities to remain in their own communities. Many of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) calls to action are additional tools, the speaker suggested.
“In the TRC section dealing with child welfare, the fourth one – ‘to enact Aboriginal Child Welfare legislation that establishes national standards for Aboriginal child apprehension in custody cases’ – is key,” he said, citing as an example the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act in the U.S. “We can stop Indigenous cultural genocide through similar regulations with strict structure, ensuring practical, workable solutions.”
Closing on a positive note, Garnons-Williams showed a photo of himself, his own adult children and his birth mother celebrating their first ever Christmas together. “This is an example of what real reconciliation looks like,” he said, emotionally. “It’s the healing of old wounds of separation, loss, guilt and trauma, and the reunification of families to pass on stories, songs, culture, history, language.”
In a session on learning and teaching Indigenous law, Queen’s Law professor Lindsay Borrows shared her approach to teaching Indigenous legal traditions effectively and respectfully. “After centuries of eroding and losing traditions due to colonialism, what’s required is a thoughtful rebuilding to re-articulate, remember and recreate the terms of what Indigenous law should be today, in a contemporary context,” she said.
Since Canada has 12 different Indigenous language families, comprising 60 different languages, there is no “one” Canadian Indigenous law, she continued. “We also have a diversity of law schools, each with a unique approach to engaging with Indigenous legal tradition. There’s no one size fits all approach!”
At Queen’s Law, where Stacia Loft, Law’20, became the inaugural Director of Indigenous Initiatives and Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity Programs in 2021, opportunities for engaging with Indigenous legal tradition have been incorporated at different levels, Borrows noted. “And across Canadian law schools, a mandatory stand-alone course is being presented as the gold standard of how to bring Indigenous law into the law school setting.”
Borrows then discussed perceived challenges to teaching and learning Indigenous law, and provided responses for each. These challenges include: intelligibility, accessibility, equality, applicability, legitimacy, relevance/utility, and distorting stereotypes, both negative and positive.
She concluded with a video from her own class on Indigenous Law in Practice, which focuses on different methods that Indigenous people are using to revitalize their legal traditions. “Introducing new ways of thinking, as well as bringing in different types of knowledge keepers and land-based learning helps us shift our perceptions of how we think about the law, moving past stereotypes,” said Borrows. “Think instead about Indigenous law as a particular response to universal human issues.”
Two Queen’s Law alumnae, Jaimie Lickers, Law’07, and Shelby Percival, Law’20, participated in a mentoring panel for Indigenous students called “Finding Your Way in University and Beyond.” The panelists shared advice on navigating law school and early careers as an Indigenous person, from the perspective of both legal and business professionals.
Lickers recalled that when she started law school, her intent was to practice corporate litigation on Bay Street, with no intention of pursuing Indigenous law. “I found that assumption to be quite offensive and in fact one of the biggest hurdles in my career,” she said.
Today, as Vice-President of Indigenous Markets at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Lickers acknowledges another hurdle: the constant ask to be the “Indigenous voice” on committees or at functions. “That can impede your career by taking time away from the billable work you do for clients, which is how you’re rewarded at performance evaluations,” she continued. “We learn to navigate those kinds of requests in a respectful way, while still being a team player at the institution where we want to make our career. It’s a balancing act.”
Reflecting on her own time in law school, Percival said that on occasion there was a mistaken assumption that Indigenous people are one homogenous group and that she might be treated as the nominal Indigenous representative at an event. On the positive side, she felt from the start that the firm she now works for, Falconers LLP, was genuine in its approach to Indigenous issues and working with Indigenous clients.
“Despite what can sometimes mean long hours and travel, I think we genuinely help to advocate for Indigenous rights and assist our clients in a way that produces meaningful results that make a difference,” she said, emphasizing the importance of building trust relationships with Indigenous clients by learning and respecting their specific cultural processes and protocols.
Both agreed that practising Indigenous law has evolved from primarily litigating land and treaty rights to a much broader suite of services. “Today, in the service of Indigenous clients, every area of law that you can imagine is offered,” said Lickers, who currently focuses on trust and tax law. “We’re trying to advance our people’s interests within the western, colonial system. Indigenous communities and individual persons need increasingly sophisticated legal advice as we become more active participants in the Canadian economy.”
The conference concluded with a keynote speech by restorative circle keeper and Indigenous anti-racism researcher, Larissa Crawford. Her talk focused on sustainability as both an environmental consideration and Indigenous people’s own resilience and ability to “show up” for their communities and their clients.
“Larissa’s message was to remain mindful of who we are, what we bring to the table and how we bring it to the table,” said co-chair Sinead Dunne. “We wanted to incorporate the wellness aspect of this conversation in addition to all the other aspects. It’s the kind of discussion we don’t often have in law school space!”
“Overall, I think that people came away from the conference with the sense that this is an issue Queen’s Law students are starting to, and need to continue to take seriously,” Dunne continued. “We brought in speakers with conflicting viewpoints, from many different backgrounds, and the conversations reflected that diversity. We were also pleased that students connected with community members, from local law firms and other businesses. It was a really interesting group of people that we were able to engage.”
By Nancy Dorrance