Student Blog: Engaging, Hands-on Learning through the Indigenous Awareness Retreat

By Victoria Wicks, 2L

I don’t usually enjoy waking up at 5:30am. But for the Indigenous Awareness Retreat, an early start was well worth it.

The one-day retreat took place on September 18, and was the inaugural module of the law school’s new Cultural Competency Certificate. It began with a sunrise ceremony — with the help of Victor Guerin’s, a member of the Musqueam First Nation, powerful drumming and singing, we gave thanks for the nature around us and welcomed a new day. This act of gratitude, though small, was one of many humbling and engaging activities of the retreat.

From analyzing Indigenous art on campus, to visiting the UBC Farm and learning about traditional medicine, the retreat was structured to ensure meaningful interaction with Indigenous culture and law. Specifically, the retreat offered a refreshingly experiential style of education.

A clear example of participatory learning was the Blanket Exercise. It involved role-playing and physically walking through a simulation of Indigenous-settler history in Canada. This visceral involvement encouraged a very personal connection to issues that I may have otherwise simply considered as abstract policy problems.

Throughout the day, fellow participants were also very generous in sharing how their individual experiences related to the broad issues at hand. Hearing these stories reinforced how concepts like colonization and reconciliation have extremely significant, every-day impacts and obligations for each of us. 

This reminder is especially pertinent to members of the legal community, given the law’s unfortunately central role in denying Indigenous rights. As such, there is a responsibility on members of the legal community to rectify these past wrongs as a step toward reconciliation. One area to do this would be within lawyer-client/community relationships. Professor Darlene Johnston and Elder Larry Grant both highlighted the need for lawyers to be considerate of the particular trauma that many Indigenous clients have faced, or continue to face. Such “trauma-informed lawyering” includes small but crucial things like checking whether a client has the appropriate supports before they recall distressing events.

Another area for renewing Indigenous-settler relationships is how we define and teach law. After sifting through hundreds of cases and statutes during first year of law school, it would be easy for me to assume that legal rules are found exclusively in these documents. The retreat, by drawing attention to different forms of law in Indigenous communities, made sure I did not make this mistake.

Brent Sparrow’s two-headed serpent house post, for example, is a declaration of the Musqueam’s presence and corresponding legal authority on their unceded, ancestral territory. Similarly, the Musqueam welcome ceremony is a legal protocol to legitimize particular people’s presence on Musqueam territory. Without such a welcome, as Professor Johnny Mack noted, we would arguably be liable for trespass. Teaching these different forms of law would not only support Indigenous resilience, but also encourage students’ ability to approach legal issues with creativity and comparative knowledge.

The retreat was replete with lessons not only about indigenous issues, but also critical thinking and inter-cultural communication. I expect the same will be said at the end of the Cultural Competency Certificate. Thank you to the hardworking people at the Indigenous Legal Studies Program who are making this all happen!