Bringing Cultural Awareness to the Classroom

Patricia Barkaskas, Instructor and
Academic Director of the
Indigenous Community Legal Clinic.
Photo by Geoff Lister.

For recent Allard School of Law graduate, Annie Macdonald, the Cultural Competency Certificate, a new eight-month non-credit certificate course at the Allard School of Law, allowed her to feel more comfortable talking openly about race, a skillset she plans to continue to build on as she begins her legal career.

Macdonald took the course because she believes it's important for non-Indigenous people to “help carry the burden" of addressing Canada’s colonial history. She felt like she had an obligation to be a part of this conversation. She also wanted to demonstrate, to both the law school and the university, that there is a strong desire among the student body to learn about these topics.

The Certificate was developed by Patricia Barkaskas, Instructor at the Allard School of Law and the Academic Director of the Indigenous Community Legal Clinic. The objectives of this certificate are to instill an understanding around issues such as: Euro-centric teachings and the law; what decolonization means for the legal landscape; and, to offer an opportunity for students to analyze and synthesize issues according to their perspectives.

“Every lawyer in Canada should have some foundational knowledge in working with Indigenous peoples. Because really at the end of the day, there’s very little in the legal profession that won’t at some point touch on Indigenous issues, or Indigenous peoples, or Indigenous communities,” says Barkaskas.

The Certificate is structured to serve as an experiential learning opportunity, where participants can reflect on what they’ve learned and put it into practice. On Tuesday, participants would watch a film, attend a lecture, or engage with a guest speaker then on Thursday (after a two day reflection period) participants would discuss the material in small groups and in a talking circle.

Barkaskas understands that, while cultural competence is an integral skill to have in the profession, there are some challenges in providing training in this area.

JD student Emory Wells.
Photo by Geoff Lister.

“We can be culturally aware - we know there are different cultures, we know that people have different practices within those cultures. But if we’re going to engage with somebody from a different culture, what skills do we need to develop in order to really be thoughtful and engaging in a way that doesn’t create a sense of cultural assumption,” explains Barkaskas.

“The Cultural Competency Certificate is about developing those skills that test our inherent biases and allow us to see those and really develop our abilities to listen to other people instead of making assumptions.”

For JD student Emory Wells, the course benefited him in a way he didn’t expect. A member of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, Wells has always felt like his perspective was less valid because he grew up in the city and was unfamiliar with his family’s cultural practices. Indigenous Legal Studies at the Allard School of Law and the Cultural Competency Certificate have allowed him to realize that he isn’t alone in feeling disconnected from his family’s history. While some of the Indigenous students at the Allard School of Law are connected to their cultures, many Indigenous students according to Wells’, “are on a path to reclaim something that has been lost”, just like him.  He believes that the Certificate’s dialogue-based format helped him to develop more confidence in the value of his lived experience, and ultimately, more confidence in the value of his voice.

The discussion-based format “allows you to verbalize things you’ve never said before. You’ve had trains of thought before, but then to just say it - and to say it in small groups in talking circle. Those smaller discussions were a valuable space to share and express thoughts that maybe I hadn't said out loud before.”

Finding non-Indigenous allies was also a valuable takeaway for Wells. “I talk about allyship with my Indigenous group, but then to talk about allyship with allies? It’s different. It’s opened up a lot of conversations.”

At the end of the day, cultural competency is a complex set of skills. “But it’s also a lot of little simple things,” Barkaskas says. “It’s listening. It’s positioning yourself within your own cultural perception and recognizing how that might cause you to look at another person’s cultural perception as wrong. And then unpacking that and saying ‘Why is this happening? Why do I assume that that’s the wrong thing? Where is that coming from? And how do I engage with this person in a way that will make them – not just feel heard – but actually be heard?’”

The Cultural Competency Certificate may have just finished its pilot year, but Wells believes that the conversation is shifting.

“The people that might feel that these opinions and this perspective is not valuable, or not applicable to their education, they’re realizing that that’s not acceptable,” says Wells.

He recalls a recent lecture, given by a speaker brought in for the Indigenous Law Students Association-hosted Indigenous Awareness Week, which brought in a packed audience. “It was way more people than I expected. At least for me, and I think for a lot of other Indigenous students, it was powerful, to see that many people interested and engaged.”