Indigenous History Lessons for Lawyers Justified and More Common in Canada: Experts

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EDMONTON — As the Law Society of Alberta seeks to defend rules requiring members to take a course on Indigenous issues, experts say such actions are common elsewhere in Canada and have legal justification.

“It’s becoming increasingly common for law firms across the country to require continuing education in specific areas,” said Trevor Farrow of York University’s Osgoode Hall School of Law in Toronto.

“The law is always changing,” said Jeremy Webber of the University of Victoria Law School.

“The reason for the requirement is to ensure that a lawyer does not continue to practice as if it were the 1980s.”

The Law Society of Alberta will vote Monday on a motion to suspend the group’s ability to require continuing education from its members. The vote comes in response to a petition by 51 lawyers concerned about The Path, a five-part course on indigenous history and culture that follows one of the calls to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.

One of the petition’s signatories, Glenn Blackett, called the course “political indoctrination” and likened it to a cancer affecting the roots of Canada’s legal system.

“The venom directed at Canadians in The Path seems less likely to promote reconciliation than a distorted perception of history and the causes of persistent indigenous socio-economic inequality, anger, shame and alienation,” he wrote in the Dorchester Review .

Other signatories said the course requirement reminded them of their childhood in authoritarian China.

“I understand the concern about indoctrination and forced speech,” Farrow said.

“I don’t see this as indoctrination. This is an education in an area where Canadians are woefully undereducated. It is the Bar Association that has part of its role in this larger social project.”

Webber said the complaint’s intent to prohibit the company from requiring continuing education suggests the motivation lies elsewhere.

“We are not talking about indoctrination. We are talking about an unwillingness to learn.”

British Columbia is a province where the Bar requires a course with an Indigenous theme.

Other self-regulating professions also require ongoing further qualification by their members.

The Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta requires its members to take a certain number of courses every three years. It doesn’t dictate one class for all members, instead giving them a range of options to choose from.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta requires continuing education and two mandatory courses on sexual abuse and misconduct.

The need for such educational updates is part of the trade such professions make with society, Farrow said.

“The basic obligation is to regulate lawyers in the public interest. These things are found in the concept of competence and what is required of a modern lawyer.”

It is also unconvincing to suggest that some types of legal practices do not coincide with indigenous issues, said Webber.

“Indigenous peoples are present in all sectors of the economy,” he said. “They exercise real control over lands that are important for resource development.”

Then there is the greater involvement of Aborigines in the criminal justice system, of which lawyers are an integral part.

“It’s no secret,” Farrow said. “What the Bar Association and the lawyers will do about this must be part of the solution, and I think that’s where part of it comes in.”

About 400 Alberta lawyers have signed a counter-petition in support of the Society’s right to claim The Road. The bar association’s 24 benchers – a sort of board of directors – also publicly opposed the original petition.

Alberta has approximately 11,000 lawyers.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on February 5, 2023.

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press


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