University of Toronto assignment becomes lightning rod in debate over Indigenous legal education

‘Sometimes it feels like Indigenous students have an extra unofficial class each semester . . . . having ‘Indigenous 101’ conversations with classmates and faculty’

University of Toronto assignment becomes lightning rod in debate over Indigenous legal education
Jackman Hall | By Patar knight

An assignment criticized for its portrayal of Indigenous stereotypes has become a flashpoint at the University of Toronto law school, students say.

The memo-writing exercise for first-year students made headlines after Dean Edward Iacobucci sent an apology letter to the students asked to complete the assignment. 

Iacobucci told Law Times that the first-year law class was given an assignment “based on a legal case that included Indigenous parties.” The school’s decanal advisor on Indigenous issues brought the assignment to the dean’s office, which in turn has asked its standing Truth and Reconciliation Committee to review policies and procedures  to “ensure that while we do not shy away from discussing difficult issues, we do so while avoiding unnecessary and offensive stereotypes.”

“[T]he Dean immediately issued an apology to students, and offered an alternative assignment for those students who did not wish to complete the original assignment,” said his office in an email.

“It is an issue on campus — I wouldn't say it's the biggest issue that we've had, but definitely students are all talking about it. I think what's interesting about it is the two contrasting perspectives of whether the school is shying away from very real issues,” says Morgan Watkins, President of the Students' Law Society and a third-year at the school.

“I absolutely sit on [the other side], which is that when we have the opportunity to come up with hypothetical examples . . . . we have full control over what kinds of facts we put into these assignments.”

The assignment was described in the press was “a hypothetical scenario in which Indigenous parents, struggling with drug and alcohol issues, had placed their three children in care. A non-Indigenous family looked after the children for two years and was prepared to adopt them. But the father, who had stopped drinking and remade his life, wanted to maintain access to the children.” 

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, publicly questioned the law students’ capacity upon graduation to respond to child welfare cases involving First Nations kids. 

Watkins — who says she does not purport to speak for any of her Indigenous colleagues and she did not do the assignment this year (in previous years it has been about issues like taxes) — adds that the assignment would have been better suited to an Indigenous law course.  In an Indigenous law course for older students, a real case could be discussed in context of Indigenous culture and history — rather than a hypothetical scenario used to illustrate memo-writing skills, she added. 

Leslie Anne St Amour, who describes herself as Algonquin and is set to graduate in 2020, says there are ways to introduce Indigenous law into classes focused on legal research or writing.

“The law school has a variety of Indigenous guest speakers and visiting scholars each year who are experts in a variety of areas of law as it relates to Indigenous people, and the school has also recently started inviting traditional teachers and knowledge holders to provide a different type of expertise on Indigenous law to students and faculty. Engagement with some of these experts may have provided a basis in Indigenous experiences and law that would have helped avoid this assignment,” she wrote in an email to Law Times. “In addition, the law school has a Manager of Indigenous Initiatives who could have been consulted in the writing of the assignment in order to prevent the display of stereotypes with no context that students received.” 

Watkins questioned whether a different hypothetical example involving a different recognizable stereotype — of a Black violent offender or a female sexual assault victim who was dressed a certain way — would clearly be seen as offensive. An Indigenous law course, on the other hand, could introduce much of the systemic context cited in the press, including that more than half the children in foster care in Canada are Indigenous.

Watkins says she disagrees with the characterization that U of T is shying away from issues facing First Nations. Rather, it has a committee that gives careful consideration to implementing the Truth and Reconciliation call to action. She says the school has hosted very honest discussions about the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the Colten Boushie case and other issues. (Dean Iacobucci’s father, Justice Frank Iacobucci, previously facilitated the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process, and studied reforms of the jury system to address challenges faced by Indigenous peoples.)

Although critics say students are eschewing the reality of the legal landscape, St Amour says that the stereotypes in the writing assignment only show part of the reality of Indigenous peoples. The “tough reality” would be to engage with the whole story: “things like residential schools, the sixties scoop, discrimination that was enabled by the Indian Act, forced relocations of communities, unequal access to basic services like healthcare and education and more,” she says. 

“Sometimes it feels like Indigenous students have an extra unofficial class each semester providing this type context and having ‘Indigenous 101’ conversations with classmates and faculty. I hope this incident will help people realize that this isn’t about being afraid of tough realities, but that it’s about asking people to question what story they’re telling and what they’re leaving out,” she says.  “Maybe it will mean a few less times I have to have these conversations throughout my career.”

Maggie Wente, a partner at Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP, took to Twitter to discuss the press coverage, saying she initially agreed with the critics of the students.

“My initial reaction was ‘these are hard issues and students should learn about them because these are the sad realities of Indigenous communities,’” she wrote.

After asking around about the assignment, Wente wrote that she felt the initial press coverage had skimmed over some of the context.

 “The only responsible way to practice law is to arm yourself with as much knowledge as you can about the client’s situation before you try to help them. That’s what the Indigenous students at U of T were asking here,” she tweeted. “I ask you to consider whether you can be more gentle with the brave Indigenous students who spoke out. The reality is, our collective histories show that until people truly understand us, they are not to be trusted with our lives, nor with trying to solve our problems.”

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