Dec. 3, 2019

Killam Visiting Professor sees how law is like a set of stories

Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark explores colonialism, gender violence, and 'how we narrate ourselves as nations'
Dr. Heidi Stark, Killam Visiting Scholar
Dr. Heidi Stark, Killam Visiting Scholar

When Dr. Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark looks at Canadian laws, she sees much more than statutes, torts and jurisprudence. She sees “a kind of creation story” for the country that has colonialism and gender violence written right into it.

Stark, the 2019 Killiam Visiting Professor, is associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Victoria. A Turtle Mountain Anishinaabekwe (North Dakota), she studies Indigenous politics and law, treaty rights, and how Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can live together with mutual respect and responsibility. “I try to juxtapose story and law together to think through how we narrate ourselves as nations and also how stories can help us rethink what kinds of nations we want to be and how we want to relate to one another,” she says.

Since arriving in Calgary in September, Stark has given a guest lecture to law students about her role as expert witness in Anishinaabe law for a treaty case, a brown bag talk in the political science department about Indigenizing the academy, and a public lecture about consent and the law.

It's been a really welcoming environment and a great opportunity to engage with a lot of different thinkers around ways of thinking about what productive Indigenous state relations can look like.

She’s also been continuing her work with her former PhD student, Dr. Gina Starblanket, now assistant professor of political science in the Faculty of Arts, on revitalizing Anishinaabe law for resource management, zoning and other land activities on the Zagimē Anishinabēk, a First Nation in Saskatchewan.

Stark has written a chapter about gender violence and colonialism for Visions of the Heart: Issues Involving Indigenous Peoples in Canada (5th edition), a book co-edited by Starblanket (a book launch will be held Dec. 4 at noon to 1:30 p.m. in room SS729). “It's a real revamping, if you will, of that textbook, which has been a primary textbook in the field of Indigenous studies and Indigenous politics for a long time at the undergraduate level,” she says.

Across her wide range of scholarly activities, Stark is heartened to see some evidence of progress toward reconciliation. “I do think there had been a lot of advances,” she says. “I think that Canada is making progress by really questioning law, by making sure to think of law and at least the constitution as these living traditions that we can modify and shift and change.” 

Having more Indigenous scholars and programming in post-secondary-institutions helps too. Teaching undergraduate and graduate students about Indigenous politics and law can “go a long way” in helping transform how we think about each other and get us closer to reconciliation. The University of Calgary indigenous strategy, ii' taa'poh'to'p, is based on a foundation of compassion through cross-cultural learning opportunities that promote awareness, education, and understanding.

“We're all living in a world of stories” she says. “The moment we start to think about law as a set of stories is the moment we can start to really question law in a much more impactful way and think about ways to transform it so that we're not stuck with a kind of legal doctrine that will never get us where we want to go as nations, both Indigenous and Canada alike.”

The Killam Visiting Scholar award is made possible through special endowment funds provided by the Killam Trust. The award sponsors a distinguished scholar who will make a significant contribution to the academic life of the University of Calgary. The University of Calgary is one of only six Killam institutions in Canada, each holding a Killam Trust endowed by the will of Dorothy Johnston Killam. Learn more about the Killam Trusts.

The next call for nominations for the Killam Research and Teaching Awards will be sent to the university community in May 2020. In the meantime, consider nominating your colleagues for other prestigious awards listed in the Prizes and Awards Calendar.