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Val Napoleon speaks on Indigenous law

Addressing law as a way to challenge power relations

“Before we begin, I would like to take a moment to acknowledge that we are on Mohawk territory and to thank them for allowing us to have this event on their lands,” began Allan Vicaire, Aboriginal Sustainability Project Coordinator at the Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) office, as he introduced Val Napoleon to a crowd of almost forty people in the Arts building on Tuesday.

Napoleon, Law Foundation Professor of Aboriginal Justice and Governance at the University of Victoria, was at McGill as part of SEDE’s Indigenous Education Series. Napoleon’s talk on Indigenous Citizenship and Law touched on issues of using Indigenous systems of law as a way to challenge, rather than perpetuate, damaging power relations and oppressions in communities.

Napoleon connected the idea of citizenship – for which she used political philosopher James Tully’s definition of “complex practices of freedom” – to Indigenous peoples’ status as citizens of both the Canadian state and their respective nations, and the need for citizens to productively challenge their relationship to governing bodies.

A traditional story told by Napoleon entitled “The Origin of the Wolf Crest” was used to explain the role of storytelling in practices of Indigenous law. “Stories are about being tools for thinking, about being spaces for conversations,” she said. The story demonstrated the ways in which gender relations, power relations, and ideas of inclusivity and membership play themselves out in groups.

Napoleon also explored the idea of “law as a process, not law as a thing.” Through this she presented a broad conception of law in which there are processes for solving human problems, discussing outcomes, and setting precedents. She called for the need to have an intellectual community to interpret Indigenous law to create “spaces to have conversations about power.”

During the question period at the end of her talk, Napoleon addressed the importance of the Idle No More movement. “I guess what I’m interested in with [Idle No More] is that there has to be a way for people to move past the criticism of what’s wrong, to constructively be able to engage,” Napoleon said. She applauded the movement for its ability to touch the lives of Indigenous peoples regardless of their previous political engagement.

Vicaire was pleased with the turnout at Napoleon’s event, as there were students from a wide range of faculties. “One of my mandates is to do a pan-university initative,” he said in an interview with The Daily. “With Indigenous issues, most students [normally] come from Anthropology, History, and Law; I want to reach students from Computer Science and Engineering,” a goal that he felt had been met on Tuesday.

Prior to her talk, Napoleon conducted two workshops in the Faculty of Law and participated in a luncheon with students at the First Peoples’ House.

Napoleon was the first of three speakers in SEDE’s Indigenous Education Series. Upcoming guest speakers will address issues of colonialism and state dependence and inequalities faced by First Nations children. Vicaire said that students and partners, such as the First Peoples’ House and Indigenous Access McGill, help him find speakers. These partners, as well as individual faculties, often help SEDE pay for bringing these guest speakers to the University.