Indigenous Public Legal Education—PLE from an Interconnected Worldview - LawNow Magazine

Indigenous Public Legal Education—PLE from an Interconnected Worldview

What does it mean to practice Public Legal Education (PLE) from an Indigenous, interconnected worldview?  This is the goal of BearPaw Legal Education (BPLE) in the development, distribution and evaluation of PLE for Indigenous peoples throughout Alberta. BPLE is a department of Native Counselling Services of Alberta (NCSA). NCSA was established in 1970 with the objective of providing Courtworker assistance to Indigenous people in conflict with the law. NCSA recognizes that Aboriginal people often feel alienated by legal and court procedures, and that they need support navigating the justice system. Since then NCSA has evolved to deliver programs, training, and services, as well as to produce research and films.

Public Legal Education: What are we Restoring?

Many projects illuminate areas of common ground between Indigenous legal traditions and Canadian laws, and also highlight the strength of Indigenous legal traditions.Canadian law, and the way justice is administered, is complicated, difficult to understand, and often shifting. All Canadians must have a basic understanding of different areas of law and how changes to the law affect them. Public Legal Education began in Canada in the 1970s, as part of the Legal Aid Movement.  Those leading the movement saw that poor people (who qualified for social welfare programs) were at a disadvantage in Court, because they could not afford counsel. PLE began in this spirit, as organizations created literature on legal issues in plain language for socially marginalized groups living in poverty, with the goal to increase access to justice.

Indigenous people have a complex relationship to Canadian law–which has been used both as an instrument of colonization, and more recently, as a way to pursue and clarify pre-existing and constitutional rights.   For two decades, NCSA has undertaken research into the effects of colonial legislation and policy on Indigenous communities, life-chances, and experiences of the law in the present moment.  Key findings highlight that some (but not all) Indigenous people live with historic trauma that shapes interactions with the legal system. What follows is a partial list of changes to Indigenous communities that resulted from colonial legislation and policy, and the consequences for peoples’ lives.

  • Since 1763, legislation and policy (including those that made the residential school system possible) have caused kinship relationships to fracture. This, is turn, has diminished the sense of interconnectedness for Indigenous people, resulting in debilitating isolation.
  • Ceremony and traditional knowledge were demonized and made illegal, resulting in loss of legal traditions and damage to Indigenous infrastructures that teach and maintain good relationships. Indigenous people who resisted these changes were targeted through the justice system, so that many Indigenous people lack a meaningful connection to Canadian law today.
  • Legislation often mirrors the assumptions a society makes about groups of people, and Canadian legislation has played a role in creating and perpetuating stereotypes about—and racism towards–Indigenous people. Many Indigenous people have internalized negative stereotypes about Indigenousness, culture and spirituality, resulting in profound shame and discomfort about their identity, and disconnection from Canadian identity and society.
  • Political, social and spiritual control over Indigenous people diminished Indigenous individuals’, families’, and nations’ ability to have power or control over their lives.
  • Indigenous people have experienced systemic discrimination in multiple systems in Canada and thus have a long-standing distrust of the criminal and family justice, as well as child welfare systems.
  • When the above is combined with higher illiteracy and poverty rates, considerable difficulty in navigating systems and feelings of hopeless, helpless and powerless result.

The work of BPLE is grounded in the NCSA Indigenous model of building individual and family resilience. Indigenous people today are also over-represented in the Canadian Legal Justice system and fair less well than their non-Indigenous counterparts at every step of the legal process. They are: more likely to be arrested, more likely to be refused bail, less likely to have adequate council and more likely to have their matter proceed to trial in result, and once convicted, more likely to be given longer sentences.  The Stanley Trial and the 2013 Iacobucci Report for the Government of Ontario are reminders that Indigenous people are unlikely to face a jury that includes other Indigenous people, or, for that matter, to see Indigenous people in influential positions within the legal system—as judges, court prosecutors or lawyers.  As victims, Indigenous people are less likely to pursue matters in court.

In 2007, NCSA completed a research project regarding the legal education needs of Aboriginal people in Alberta. The findings highlighted Indigenous people’s difficulty navigating the justice system and understanding legal terminology and legislation, and general apprehension of, disconnection from, and apathy towards the system.

These current realities and research findings builds a strong case that PLE for Indigenous people must be grounded in restorative practice – as a tool for reconciliation. To accomplish this goal, PLE must be created by Indigenous people, mobilizes Indigenous worldviews, and delivered in a culturally congruent manner.

Interconnected Worldview

Reconciliation must include reworking laws and systems to remove their colonial foundations, as a starting point to repair damaged relationships, as well as address isolation and despair. In tandem with this, Indigenous worldviews must be taken as legitimate and given substantive space to shape and direct social institutions alongside western/European based perspectives.

The work of BPLE is grounded in the NCSA Indigenous model of building individual and family resilience. The model centers on an interconnected worldview that privileges the building, maintaining and strengthening of good relationships between all living things. From this perspective, there are three principles that guide BPLE’s work:

  1. reclaiming an interconnected world view;
  2. fostering reconciliation; and
  3. encouraging self-determination.

Since 1763, legislation and policy (including those that made the residential school system possible) have caused kinship relationships to fracture.  First, our resources must reflect and help Indigenous people reclaim an interconnected worldview and connection to a legal tradition. In part, this includes encouraging connectedness to community-based resources. We provide workshops that are culturally congruent, delivered by Indigenous facilitators and offered in the communities where Indigenous people live. We strive to create good, reciprocal partnerships with agencies throughout Alberta, to facilitate the distribution of our resources and workshop content. Our PLE publications reflect Indigenous worldview, employ well-known Indigenous actors and comedians, and engage our intended audience through shared cultural referents.

Second, BPLE’s resources work towards the reconciliation of relationships damaged by colonization. The primary relationship we seek to reconcile is between Indigenous people and Canadian society and law. Many projects illuminate areas of common ground between Indigenous legal traditions and Canadian laws, and also highlight the strength of Indigenous legal traditions. In addition, we take on projects that address issues that are related to historic trauma, for example, reporting sexual assault and every Indigenous person’s right to be safe in Alberta. Our resources provide content that promotes healing and reconciliation by examining the historic and systemic roots of the issue discussed, to raise awareness on how Indigenous individuals can use the law to protect themselves.

Finally, BPLE creates resources that promote self-determination – the ability of Indigenous people to be able to understand and navigate legal systems, recognize the areas of law where they can assert their rights, as well as make good decisions for themselves. For example, BPLE workshops are often with small groups and encourage free-flowing discussions around rights and responsibilities, with the goals to increase both individual understanding and agency.  Additionally, printed resources illuminate how families can participate in decision making related to legal issues: for example, resources on Alberta’s Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act highlight how to access family group conferencing. BPLE’s resources assist Indigenous people to understand their responsibilities regarding Canadian law; we strive to increase awareness in an effort to prevent unintended consequences – such as eviction, arrest, fines or incarceration.

These principles—reclaiming an interconnected world view, promoting reconciliation, and fostering self-determination– are the cornerstone of all programs and services at NCSA. Our connectedness with Indigenous communities throughout Alberta, as well as our partners, and our self determination to do the work we are guided to by the Elders remains the foundation of 48 years of service for and by Indigenous people in Alberta.


Patti LaBoucane Benson

Alex Choby
Alex Choby is a research officer at BearPaw Legal Education Centre and has a Ph.D. in medical anthropology.

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