Last October, the Law Society of Alberta made it a requirement that all lawyers in the province had to take a course on Indigenous cultural competency, starting in 2021. A unilateral action like this isn’t very common in the law profession, but Kent Teskey, the president of the Law Society of Alberta, said that it’s an important way for everyone practicing to understand the same legal issues and hurdles facing Indigenous people in the province.
Alberta’s law society is the second in the country, following British Columbia, in making this training a requirement for lawyers, following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to improve the understanding of Indigenous legal issues. In Ontario, however, the provincial regulatory body for lawyers and paralegals only gives out a 115-page reference guide. Should Ontario follow B.C.’s lead and make training mandatory?
What Is Indigenous Cultural Competency Training?
The 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action included a request that Canadian lawyers be educated on the history and legacy of residential schools as well as treaties, Indigenous rights, and Indigenous legal issues. It said that Canada’s law societies should “ensure that lawyers receive appropriate cultural competency training, which includes the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal-Crown relations (requiring) skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.”
An Indigenous Cultural Competence course is a learning experience about cultural competence and opportunities for those in the law profession to contribute to the reconciliation process. The competency training includes an overview of Indigenous Canada, a history of Canada including residential schools and the potential of intergenerational trauma, how Indigenous communities have been resilient in the face of continued discrimination, how to improve cultural competence, the role of allies, the importance of challenging racism, and how those taking the course can contribute to reconciliation.
For those in Alberta and British Columbia, the requirements are not onerous: all practicing lawyers must take a free, six-hour online course covering these areas; in B.C., they must also learn what legislative changes could arise from the 2019 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act. A six-hour course isn’t difficult, but why have only two provinces taken this simple action?
Ontario’s Requirements And Where We Can Improve
Here in Ontario, lawyers began receiving a “Guide for Lawyers Working with Indigenous Peoples” in 2018. This book was produced in partnership with the Indigenous Bar Association and an independent legal organization called the Advocates’ Society, and it is the response of the Law Society of Ontario to recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report.
This is the extent of what lawyers here are compelled to do, which is a major contrast to B.C. and Alberta. In B.C., Indigenous intercultural competency is seen as “a necessary part of lawyer competence.” The training provides lawyers with an education about the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Crown, the history of residential schools and their continued legacy, as well as how provincial and Federal legislation created many of the issues addressed by reconciliation.
While the handbook given to Ontario lawyers is helpful and useful, there’s no compulsion by our Law Society to actually read it. It’s not without precedent here; anyone working in the Ontario Public Service has to take mandatory Indigenous cultural competency and anti-racism training. To understand the issues in the book, all lawyers should take Indigenous Cultural Competency training. The Canadian justice system was built on stereotypes and racist assumptions about Indigenous people, and courses like these are an important part of that dispelling lingering colonial stereotypes and creating a more equitable justice system.
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