Lawyers in B.C. will be first in Canada required to study Indigenous issues, history, law society says

The Law Society of British Columbia has moved to require Indigenous cultural competency training for all practising lawyers in the province, in response to gaps in legal education that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified.

“Lawyers and the law created a justice system that discriminates against Indigenous people,” said society president Nancy Merrill, noting that it was illegal for a lawyer to take a retainer from an Indigenous person until the 1960s.

“That’s still recent history,” she said. “We need to move forward.”

Last week, the law society’s board of governors determined that lawyer competence should include knowledge of the history of Indigenous-Crown relations, the history and legacy of residential schools and specific legislation regarding Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Beginning in 2021, all practising lawyers in B.C. will be required to take a six-hour online course covering these areas, as well as legislative changes that could arise from the province’s newly enacted Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.

Lawyers will have up to two years to complete the course the mandatory course, which is a first among law societies across Canada, Merrill said.

“The law society’s role is to protect the public interest in the administration of justice,” said Vancouver-based lawyer Michael McDonald, who co-chaired the law society’s truth and reconciliation advisory committee. He is also a member of Peguis First Nation in Manitoba.

“Serving the public interest means a knowledge of the facts of history, even if that history does not show our society in a good light.”

Law students in B.C. are getting some cultural competency training already, but many lawyers have been practising for decades and some are coming to the province from other jurisdictions, said the co-chair of the law society’s truth and reconciliation advisory committee. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

Legal system has been agent of harm: lawyer

Historically, the legal system was an agent of harm for Indigenous peoples and in some ways it continues to be, McDonald said, pointing to the over-representation of Indigenous people in prisons and the judicial system.

Issues of concern to Indigenous peoples permeate all areas of the law, he said, from criminal and family law to corporate law, environmental law and intellectual property and trademark law.

Law students in B.C. are getting some cultural competency training already, but many lawyers have been practising for decades and some are coming to the province from other jurisdictions, said McDonald, adding that the requirements passed by the law society are the “baseline minimum.”

It’s important to support criminal justice lawyers with basic knowledge of key aspects of Indigenous experiences in Canada, such as the Sixties Scoop, during which Canadian government policies facilitated the apprehension of thousands of Indigenous children who were placed with non-Indigenous foster families, McDonald said.

“People who become more aware of that can then use that to inform the quality of their legal services,” he said.

Many real estate lawyers also lack knowledge about the Indian Act and how to strike development deals on reserves, said McDonald.

“If you’re not aware of the internal politics and the history and culture of the people that give you your instructions, how are you going to be a good lawyer in that deal?”

There is a plan to develop more specific, supplementary courses in the future, he said, which would be voluntary.

Commission’s call for training

In its report released in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called upon the Federation of Law Societies of Canada to ensure lawyers receive appropriate cultural competency training, including the history and legacy of residential schools, treaties and Indigenous rights, Indigenous law, and Indigenous-Crown relations, as well as training in conflict resolution and anti-racism.

John Borrows, the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law at the University of Victoria, said he hopes the law society’s cultural competency training might one day delve into Indigenous communities’ own laws and legal traditions.

“It’s opening up those spaces to see Indigenous law, to see the agency of Indigenous clients and the context that they operate from,” he said.



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