Law student cohort at Kluane Lake. David Wright

June 21, 2023

New law course helps future lawyers better understand Indigenous treaties

Students learn first-hand from Yukon First Nations leaders

Aboriginal and Indigenous law are among the fastest-evolving legal fields in Canada, which is why two associate professors from the Faculty of Law have launched a new course to meet this need.

Modern Treaties and the Law is an intensive two-week course that takes University of Calgary law students to Whitehorse, Yukon, and surrounding communities to focus on the law of modern treaties and Indigenous self-government. 

“The idea is that the students are immersed in the part of Canada where there are the most modern treaties — there are 11 final agreements in the Yukon,” says associate professor David Wright, who created the course with Dr. Robert Hamilton, PhD, a fellow associate professor.

“Students meet with First Nations leaders, government leaders, Yukon-based lawyers and judges, and other folks involved in the legal system, and they learn the substance of the law, but also implementation challenges with respect to treaties, all while being situated in the field.”

Students met with First Nations leaders, government leaders, Yukon-based lawyers and judges involved in the legal system.

David Wright

The first-ever offering of the course took place May 14 to 28, during which a cohort of 12 students engaged directly with the treaties, court decisions and legal commentary, as well as with First Nations leaders, Indigenous government officials and organizations, and Yukon government leaders and lawyers.

“We had a presentation and discussion with the Grand Chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations,” says Wright. “We had a long and wonderful session, including ceremony, with the lead negotiator and senior officials for Carcross/Tagish First Nation, and we also met with individuals and officials from Kluane First Nation, Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, and others.” 

Though most of the modern treaties in the Yukon were negotiated decades ago, there have been significant changes in federal, provincial and territorial law and policy since, particularly in the last five to eight years. As such, modern treaty contexts are grappling with substantial developments in Crown-Indigenous relations in Canada. 

Hamilton says modern treaties are reworking the nature of those relations on the basis of negotiated agreements, defining jurisdiction and the powers of the parties; however, he notes, there are only a handful of post-secondary law courses in Canada that teach these topics in depth. 

Modern Treaties and the Law is an intensive, two-week course that takes University of Calgary law students to Whitehorse, Yukon, and surrounding communities.

David Wright

“One of the new things about modern treaty agreements is how they're going to be interpreted and implemented in the context of rapidly shifting legal and political norms around Crown-Indigenous relations,” says Hamilton. “Things like greater recognition of Indigenous rights and, jurisdiction [and] things like implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples are really pushing the conversation around Crown-Indigenous relations forward rapidly.”

The new course aims to help students understand where the modern treaties fit in the broader policy landscape because, while these are relatively new agreements, they were still signed at a time when law and policy related to these issues were not as developed as they are now.  

“Thinking about how western law and Indigenous law relate, I think, is one of the really key parts to thinking about modern treaty implementation and self-government agreements,” says Hamilton. “Self-government agreements, in one sense, bring to bear a structure of law and governance that looks very western … They have written constitutions, for example, but something that the students were able to learn about by going to these Nations and learning and hearing from them was the ways that they're bringing their traditional customs, their laws to bear on this.”

Wright and Hamilton were able to create the Modern Treaties and the Law course with help from a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant, as well as with the partnership of Dr. Joshua Nichols, PhD, from the Faculty of Law at McGill University. Though they admit it was challenging to set up such a course from scratch, they say they also had strong support from UCalgary’s Faculty of Law. 

The professors say they also hope students are able to gain valuable knowledge and insight regarding Aboriginal and Indigenous law, helping them become better lawyers that will have a deeper understanding and respect for Indigenous laws, governance and jurisdiction. 

“Our hope is that this sets these students up to have a broader positive impact on the profession in terms of reconciliation in action,” says Wright. “So, they are now in a position to raise awareness and build bridges between relationships and communities into the future that, over the long term, should have a significant positive impact, particularly if there is a cohort of such students annually.”