Making Meaning: Indigenous Legal Education and Student Action.

AuthorBorrows, John

Introduction: Contextualizing the Big Questions I. University Students and Proximate Life Purposes II. Law Students and Indigenous Legal Education Initiatives III. Graduate Students and Indigenous Law IV. Colonialism and the Resurgence of Indigenous Law: The JID/JD Dual Degree Conclusion: Education, the Meaning of Life, and Indigenous Law Introduction: Contextualizing the Big Questions

I struggle to find life's meaning. The book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy says that the answer is 42. While I like this answer, this issue is not solely numeric or metaphysical. Ordinary questions about life's physical trajectory can be difficult, such as "where did I come from?", "why am I here?", and "where am I going?". For example, try answering these queries with reference to your own educational, employment, relational, political, social, or economic status. You will find many strands in your answers that complicate understanding since causation and trajectories are not linear. Furthermore, some things simply cannot be known.

At the same time, I should not overstate these challenges. These questions may yield obvious responses when considering specific issues. This is particularly true regarding education. For example, people go to university to prepare for future employment. In contemplating where they come from, a university student might say that they came from a secondary school. In discussing why they are here, they could talk about developing skills, discipline, and friendships while receiving academic credentials. Finally, successful students might report that they are going to use these skills to support themselves and their loved ones. Thus, it is possible to provide some tangible, tentative answers to life's biggest questions if we consider more modest, proximate ends.

Nevertheless, these inquiries become more difficult when considering our interior views, particularly those related to timeframes beyond our lifetimes. Our emotional, psychological, intellectual, and spiritual lives are notoriously complex. Our internal ideas and feelings constantly shift. Furthermore, approaches to life's so-called meaning are influenced by our class, race, gender, culture, religion, age, sexual orientation, and other varied contexts. Our perspectives are also intergenerational. This gives rise to many perspectives on where, why, and how questions.

This essay examines how university students change understandings of where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going in relation to Indigenous and Canadian law. Part I examines more general student approaches to education, including the intrinsic and instrumental motivations of students and how those students influence their professors' teaching and writing. Part II highlights Indigenous legal education initiatives at the University of British Columbia, Osgoode Hall Law School at York University, the University of Toronto, and the University of Victoria. This second Part shows that law students are a significant force in persuading law schools to add Indigenous courses, moot courts, clinical experiences, internships, land-based events, a scholarly journal, and teaching in legal traditions to the mix of learning opportunities in these institutions. Part III discusses the importance of graduate students in asking where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going in legal, political, social, and economic terms. Finally, Part IV discusses the development of the joint Indigenous law and common law degree (JID/JD) program at the University of Victoria Law School as a dimension of student action in changing how we teach and practice law in Canada.

Ultimately, this essay concludes by suggesting that life's meaning, in part, revolves around our capacities for growth. This growth is enhanced when students compare, contrast, consider, criticize, concur, and reject other people's views, including those of Canada's legislatures and courts, as well as their own communities', professors', and colleagues' views. In following these paths, this essay concludes that it is not easy to find life's meaning, in either proximate or absolute terms. Nevertheless, striving to understand life's purposes, while accepting the task's possible futility, creates constructive tensions that appropriately challenge self-assured stories about where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going as individuals and societies.

  1. University Students and Proximate Life Purposes

    Despite certain limits, (1) students ask big questions and reflect on life's purposes in universities. For example, university students see their own lives in broader contexts when they learn more about themselves, their neighbours, and people they will never meet. They pursue post-secondary education to grapple with perspectives very different from their own. In the process, students seek to better understand their communities' histories and contemporary circumstances, and to contribute to the larger world.

    Other students study for reasons that are not obvious at the outset, particularly when they acknowledge that they do not really know themselves. These students go to school to learn who they may be or become. In other words, they attend university for intrinsic reasons. They are prepared to be surprised about their own past, present, and future. From these vantage points, asking students where they came from, why they are here, and where they are going may be precisely what they hope to forge and learn in university.

    Many of these same students use their education to challenge existing conditions and fight injustice. They are motivated to learn by their acceptance, alteration, transformation, or rejection of their prior views. I regularly encounter university students who implicitly tackle larger pressing questions related to where they came from, why they are here, and where they are going.

    Yet other university students are more cautious in their approaches to university life. Their interests are more instrumental. They go to school to confirm their own ideas, identities, feelings, and frameworks. They are no different than most of us in this regard. We all struggle with complexity. This is why humans use mental shortcuts, called heuristics, in identifying and assessing information. This favours the status quo and introduces bias into our decision-making. (2) Heuristics often provide shortcuts for taking action because we do not have the time, information, or abilities to explore all the varied implications of the information that we receive. (3) Life's ambiguities can be overwhelming and thus, when learning, we necessarily use rough estimates about how to proceed when presented with new ideas. This happens in university even as we try to widen our horizons or opportunities. Default positions, which affirm our views, help us take action without having to analyze every new detail that we encounter. Thus, heuristics can serve us well.

    Unfortunately, danger arises when our biases hide our preconceptions, predilections, and predispositions, particularly from ourselves. This can be a challenge for university professors and students if our identitybased frameworks prevent us from facing facts or respecting others' opinions. Thus, universities function best when they bring our own biases to our attention. The following examples demonstrate students' humility and resolve to both respect and challenge received wisdom. These examples show why students are at the heart of any university's mission because of how they reflect upon preconceived ideas and forge new pathways.

    Speaking personally, I have been impressed with how university students, as a group, broaden our horizons and expand our views. I see more of how other people frame life's purposes because of their participation in class, office visits, faculty governance, and research output. My most important experiences in universities are with students. This is not to diminish professors' contributions. I merely acknowledge an obvious point: professors are not the fount of all knowledge; they are not necessarily the most innovative part of our post-secondary education systems. Students ask questions that often propel a professor's own work. Students' research advances knowledge in key ways as professors learn from, with, and alongside students as we teach, mentor, supervise, and read their work. As I said, they have been some of my greatest teachers. I absorb as much from them as any other source.

    One reason that student engagement can be enriching is because student experiences can be more varied when compared to those of their professors. Students therefore bring unexpected perspectives to their interactions. They teach faculty and one another in direct and vicarious ways. Some students read widely and pass along what they have learned in class, conversations, and essays. Moreover, life is not static. Through thirty years of teaching, I have noticed that each generation raises different concerns. Students ask tough questions about things that I rarely or unfairly consider. Since their collective life experience is broader than my own, I would be foolish not to learn from them. Not only do they answer questions, but they also question answers that I assumed were not subject to further interrogation. (4) When this happens, I learn more about life's meaning.

    There are also times when students teach me what not to do. Like all people, they can be foolish. Their missteps and oversights give me pause. They also make mistakes; they get things wrong and require correction. Like their professors, they make errors. How we convey and respond to subpar grades, teaching evaluations, and peer review can be done well or poorly. Furthermore, a lapse in judgement can reveal assumptions that would otherwise remain hidden.

    Furthermore, every decade, one or two students unfortunately cause great harm to their colleagues and our school. Whether through plagiarism, passive...

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