From rugs to reflections on law school

The lawyer I currently work with decided to purchase some Persian rugs for the office. He has done some business in the past with a fellow whose carpet store is currently closing down, so he swung by to see if anything caught his fancy.  The owner’s wife apparently had some interest in Aboriginal issues, and passed some books on to my employer who in turn, brought them into the office.

One of these books is titled, “Thunder in my soul: A Mohawk woman speaks” by Patricia Monture-Angus.  Through the odd, delightful and unexpected ways that life unfolds, I am now half-way through a book I fervently wish I had known existed before I went into law school, and one which I seriously recommend to any Aboriginal person either in or considering law school.

I am still facing another year of law school in September.  I finished my LLB in Alberta, but moving to Quebec means I also have to be trained in civil law.  I am not looking forward to this.  One consolation is that I know not to hope that the learning will be relevant to me as a Métis woman.  My cultural perspective will not be spoken to, or even addressed.  I can approach the upcoming year in two ways: one, as an opportunity to nail down my French fluency; and two, as a practical guide to civil law procedure.  In this way, I can at least gain a further set of tools.

Perhaps that sounds cold-blooded, but it is an approach born from experience with law school.  Patricia Monture-Angus sums that experience up perfectly:

“When I enrolled in law school, I honestly believed that Canadian law would assist Aboriginal people in securing just and fair treatment.  This is why I agreed to study law.  Since then, I have learned that the Aboriginal experience of Canadian law can never be about justice and fairness for Aboriginal people.  Evey oppression that Aboriginal people have survived has been delivered up to us through Canadian law…”

Law school was a life-changing experience for me.  It’s not that the school work was so difficult…it wasn’t.  My marks are all over the place, but don’t really tell you much.  I never took a single Aboriginal law course, for example…yet this is what I do day in and day out.  I studied it in my ‘spare time’ and it is my area of expertise.  I did not fare so much worse than other students despite having two children to care for, and going through divorce in my second year.

No, law school was a life-changing experience for me, because it was like stepping into an alternate dimension.  I have never felt so culturally overwhelmed as I did during those three years.  Without the help of a few fellow students and one native law professor, I very much doubt I would have remained in the program.

I am not sure how much detail I want to go into, or how well I can explain this, but I first wanted to bring up another quote by Patricia Monture-Angus.  She was describing a situations where some of her white, female students in the Women’s Studies program were feeling that the classroom harmony was being disrupted by conflict between them, and non-white female students.

“I was overwhelmed by this comment.  In my more than ten years as a student and my five years as a professor, I have never experienced the classroom as a safe place.

This, this and so much this.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are a number of non-Aboriginal professors and students that were a joy to learn from and speak to and with whom I am still friends.  This is not about individuals and is very much about a system.  Nonetheless, the feeling remains.  Even with the stress of law school, I believe that for most people it was a positive, exciting time…an intellectual and social haven.  That was not my experience.

I very nearly dropped out after the first semester.  I had learned more in that short time about the political and legal underpinnings of Canadian society than I had in all my years of study before…but while for most people I think it was an affirmation, or at worst an understanding of a flawed but mostly good system, for me it was totally alien and extremely painful.

How could it have come as such a shock?  I had spent 17 years in the Canadian school system before that!

Well I suppose for me, this was the ‘real deal’.  Before this, I had all sorts of hopes about changing things from the inside.  I believed there was space for indigenous world views…heck, I even thought I might be exposed to some of them in law school!  I mean, this was 2006!

But there I was, in a place I felt like I had snuck into without permission.  Among fellow students who were seventh generation lawyers/judges/politicans.  It wasn’t just that the socio-economic status of most of my classmates by far exceeded my own…it was very much about how the entire program was shaped around their culture.  I never once felt like I belonged there.

I got tired, after a while, of being the ‘voice in the back’, bringing up indigenous issues that most of my classmates clearly felt were mere sidetracks to a more important discussion.  I began to realise just how little these future power brokers know or care to understand about us.  Every case, every article, every class discussion reminded me that there are a set of cultural assumptions which absolutely have to be understood and accepted in order to know what is going on.

If you already share those cultural assumptions, then you merely need to build upon them.  If, however, you are operating from a different set of cultural assumptions, then you constantly have to engage in a process of reflection and resistance.  You have to identify what the differences are, and you have to resist the default position of inferiority that comes with only having that other system validated.

You cannot let your guard down, because you feel like you will lose yourself if you do.  Law school does an excellent job of selling the status quo, and that status quo has your culture labelled as primitive, inferior,  backwards, and corrupt all without ever once actually knowing what that culture is.

I think that is what upset me the most.  The assumptions about indigenous peoples, cultures and legal orders that seep through the pages of the case law, and come pouring out of the mouths of even the most well-intentioned.  These assumptions confront you in a much more aggressive way in law school because there is definitely the attitude that if aboriginal peoples want space within the Canadian system for their own indigenous legal systems…well we are expected to explain and demonstrate not only the worth of those systems, but we must also refute all the bizarre beliefs people have about us.

That’s a rather tall order.  I felt like any time I wanted to present my perspective, in property law, criminal law, or elsewhere, I would have had to provide so much background information to even get people near to being on the same page as me, and this was overwhelming.  It did not help that this was the first time I’d really thought about what laws are and how they are made.  I was not an expert in Métis or Cree legal orders (nor am I still)…I only knew basic values, not how to translate those into a legal system I could then hold up as an alternative to the current Canadian one!

Patricia Monture-Angus really speaks to the various issues native students continue to face in law school, and it has been calming in a way to read her book.  I suppose it makes me feel like what I went through was ‘normal’…that my difficulties with the process were not personal flaws, nor cultural ones.  I think this is a valuable book for other native students of law but also for those people designing and implementing legal programs.  Being able to identify where Aboriginal students encounter difficulty and why should provide an opportunity to improve the system.

If there is no will to actually do that, it at least lets us know what we’re facing.  We are strong people…we can put up with a lot, and I would have preferred knowing from the get go that law school was going to feel like a cultural battlefield rather than being wooed with the promise of a so-called Indigenous Law Program.

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Categories: Aboriginal law, Alienation, Culture, Injustice, Law, Representation of natives

6 Responses to From rugs to reflections on law school


  1. Kate Hansen says:

    You rock, that is all.

  2. Em0 says:

    QUOTEI must add that these sources [written laws] cannot be
    treated as value-neutral artefacts, either: on that continent as on this one, the
    laws have been written by conquerors…
    It is appealing to pretend that the importance of Latin is the result of some ideal
    represented by the language itself, yet the relationships between language strata
    have (in fact) been defined and re-defined through a history comprising war,
    slavery, feudalism, religious authority and revolution. My point here becomes
    obvious when we turn to cultural examples that are no less alien, but less glorified:
    the significance of having a Francophone police force in Quebec means that the
    Québécois do not have to fear being interrogated in English. The question of
    what language we write laws in is not symbolic: the Québécois do not want to live
    in fear of police and administrators who speak the language of their conquerors.
    Meanwhile, the speakers of Cree, Ojibwe and other languages indigenous to
    Canada definitely do live in fear of interrogation from police officers speaking
    exclusively the languages of foreign colonists.
    I may mention that the law of
    England is also written in a foreign language: that of the Norman French.

    CLOSE QUOTE
    SOURCE: http://www.ocbs.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=73:language-hierarchy-buddhism-and-worldly-authority-&catid=29:articles-archive&Itemid=121

  3. Emo says:

    I notice, by the way, that the constitution of Canada itself hasn’t been translated into Cree.
    The “Charter of Rights and Freedoms” is being translated into Cree now, apparently…
    http://www.charterofrights.ca/cr/80_00_01
    …but, as you can imagine, I’m not exactly a fan of the English text. I wonder if they managed to make it even more vague and toothless in translation?

  4. Hi there,

    I have stumbled upon your blog following the amazing Attawapiskat article you wrote. I too am a Métis/Cree young mother and I am interested in studying law. I have just began inquiring about admissions criteria, etc. This is a huge decision, as it means relocating our family (my partner and our daughter) to Edmonton from northern Alberta.

    I have voiced many concerns and opinions regarding Aboriginal law in my own community. Earlier this year, I wrote what I feel is an important letter to Clement Chartier and the MNC. I want to earn the credentials needed for my voice to be taken seriously and, at best, validated.

    The feelings you describe upon finding Monture-Angus’s book, I feel from having discovered your blog. I’m wondering if you could email me and send me some more info as to your personal experience studying law at U of A? I feel that Aboriginal law is destined to be my field of expertise too. I can be reached at *********** or ********. Thanks so much.

  5. mo says:

    I too am from the prairies (am a member of a Cree First Nation) and went to law school in Montreal at McGill. Your description of your experience pretty much sums up my own. I did make some connections during this time though that I value today. I met Patricia during my last year of law school, and she said that law was pretty much a soul-destroying experience for her. I totally related to this, and I wished I had known this before entering law school. Yet I have to say that I do enjoy some of the work that I do now. All the best to you — enjoy reading your blog.

  6. kattvantar says:

    “If, however, you are operating from a different set of cultural assumptions, then you constantly have to engage in a process of reflection and resistance. You have to identify what the differences are, and you have to resist the default position of inferiority that comes with only having that other system validated.”

    Beautifully said; a perfect description of how it feels to be a minority! Thank you.

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