UBC’s Faculty of Law is the first Canadian law school to require a course on aboriginal legal issues.
Beginning with the class of 2015, all first-year law students will receive a more thorough background in aboriginal and treaty rights.
The reconfigured LAW 100 course (Canadian Constitutional Law) will place greater weight on Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution, which deals with aboriginal rights. The course’s new focus is intended to better prepare students for aboriginal legal issues.
The new curriculum was partly in response to the National Federation of Law Societies, which recently outlined “core competencies” (including aboriginal and treaty rights) for graduates to fulfill in order to practice in any common law jurisdiction. The change, however, was also an opportunity to address a growing concern among faculty.
“I don’t think you can practice law in British Columbia without encountering [aboriginal legal issues],” said Darlene Johnston, a professor specializing in aboriginal and treaty rights at UBC. Yet despite the prevalence of aboriginal law, the faculty recognized that very few students were actually graduating with any grounding in the subject.
“We give them the first steps, because without those first few steps, they can easily go off in the wrong direction.”
Amelia Boultbee, a second-year law student who took LAW 100 last year, said there was a void when it came to learning about aboriginal rights.
“It’s been very contentious. I was on the academic issues committee lat year when these changes were being debated. I can tell you there was a contingent of people who felt very strongly that it [aboriginal rights] wasn’t being covered enough by some profs,” said Boultbee.
The complexity of this area of law, coupled with a current lack of aboriginal lawyers, further stressed the need for foundational training.
“We give them the first steps,” said Gordon Christie, director of the First Nations legal studies program at UBC. “Because without those first few steps, they can easily go off in the wrong direction.”
Boultbee said that with the limited amount of time in law school, aboriginal rights can sometimes get left out of the curriculum.
“You can choose to slice this however you want, but it’s just really hard when you have so many vast areas of law [and] you only have three years of law school,” said Boultbee.
Students have also responded positively to the curriculum change. “I’m glad they’re having it,” said first-year law student Clayton Gllant. “It’s not an onerous requirement and it shows students the different practice areas they can pursue.”
As for the future, there are no immediate plans to make additional courses on aboriginal law mandatory. Rather, Johnston and Christie are hopeful that the new requirement will increase interest in First Nations legal studies.