Indigenous History and the Law

May 31, 2023

When I think of Indigenous History Month, all I can think about is my father, who recently made his journey to the spirit world. He was an Elder in our community and full of so much knowledge and history of our people. He was even given a traditional name when he was 5 that translates to “the old man” because of the wisdom he was already showing at such a young age.

When he passed, I felt like a library had burned down. As I move on in my grief, I am comforted by the fact that I carry some of his stories and teachings with me and know I can pass our histories on to my son.

That is why this month means so much to Indigenous folk like me. Our history is vibrant and rich. We have many talented, intelligent, strong Indigenous people that have made significant contributions to Canadian society. That said, our history is also tainted with darkness and must be acknowledged, as it still impacts many Indigenous people today.

There have been significant strides in education as reconciliation efforts increase in Canada, but the work is just getting started. Please don’t give up even when it feels difficult and uncomfortable. Sit with those feelings and reflect on how to move forward.

While Indigenous people have the longest history with the land that would become Canada, our relationship to the law and legal profession is much shorter. For the first century of Canada’s existence, we were specifically excluded from the profession.

From the late 1800s up until the 1960s, provisions in legislation such as the Indian Act, the Gradual Enfranchisement Act, and the Elections Act prevented First Nations people with Indian Status, which is a legal term of art, from having the same stature in society as their fellow Canadians. For example, unless they gave up their Status (which meant losing all the benefits that were received from entering into the treaties), a First Nations person could not become a lawyer.

Indigenous lawyers in Alberta only began to enter the profession in the early 1980s. Our presence and perspectives have been in the legal field for less than fifty years. More Indigenous lawyers enter the profession each year, but we still only make up about one per cent of the profession. I am hopeful that more Indigenous people will be attracted to the profession as more Indigenous justice centres open and more specialized courts for Indigenous people are created.

When it comes to Métis legal history and identity, I rely on Jean Teillet, lawyer and academic. She opens her textbook, Métis Law in Canada, with an excerpt from Alberta (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development) v. Cunningham that helps the reader understand a bit of Métis history: “The Métis considered themselves as one of the three Aboriginal groups in Canada, but this was not recognized until the Constitution Act, 1982. Unlike Indians, however, they enjoyed no land base from which to strengthen their identity and culture or govern themselves. Their aboriginality, in a word, was not legally acknowledged or protected.”

Métis people have made significant strides and have contributed a lot to Canadian society. For more legal history and information regarding Métis people, check out the Pape Salter Teillet LLP website.

April 1, 1999 was a landmark (literally) day for Inuit people – the shape of Canada didn’t change but the lines inside it did as maps were redrawn to include Nunavut. For Indigenous History Month, I will be engaging with educational resources and webinars to learn more about Inuit people. I invite you to join me and register for online Inuit Culturally Sensitivity Training provided by Tungasuvvingat Inuit on June 13 to become a better ally for all Indigenous people in Canada.

It is an impossible task to try to summarize the significance of Indigenous history, but I encourage you to review resources and engage with your own reconciliation work during this time. The Indigenous Bar Association provides Indigenous legal resources to continue your ongoing legal education and you can also check out the Law Society of Alberta’s Truth and Reconciliation Library.

Finally, please join the Law Society on June 21, National Indigenous People’s Day, for Journey to the Law – an opportunity to hear about the journey to becoming a lawyer for four Indigenous people at different points in their career.

By: Jessica Buffalo, Indigenous Initiatives Counsel