Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Elder Constance Simmonds

Elder Constance Simmonds is the Elder-in-Residence at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, pictured during a drum making workshop at the Faculty in 2018 (photo Katie Tissington-Turner)

This year the University of Toronto Faculty of Law welcomed Elder Constance Simmonds as Elder-in-Residence.

Elder Simmonds is a Cree Métis Knowledge Keeper (Treaty 6, northern Saskatchewan) and pipe carrier with over forty years' experience providing addictions, mental health and trauma counselling.

As part of her residency, she leads monthly teachings on the bundle, an introduction to Indigenous worldviews, medicines, life cycles and more. Her final bundle teaching is scheduled for June 24, with each lesson held on or close to the full moon.

“Each lesson builds on the previous with respect to Indigenous laws and traditions,” says Amanda Carling (JD 2012), the Faculty’s Indigenous Initiatives Office Manager.

“In addition to learning, the idea of the bundle teachings is to sit in circle, build relationships, share, laugh and feel good. Of course, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these teachings were held virtually. It is our hope to continue these lessons annually, with an Elder-in-Residence, so that in a post-COVID world, our interested and dedicated students can experience land-based teachings and ceremonies like the sweat lodge.”

Elder Constance Simmonds and Amanda Carling

Elder Simmonds and Carling on National Indigenous Peoples' Day, June 2018 (photo Jesse Johnston) 

Elder Simmonds has served as a Senator for the Métis Nation of Ontario, a member of the Indigenous Advisory Group to the Law Society of Ontario, an Elder-in-Residence at Women’s College Hospital and University of Toronto’s Council of Aboriginal Initiatives Elder’s Circle, to name just a few.

Prior to her residency, Elder Simmonds worked with Indigenous students at U of T Law and helped non-Indigenous settler students learn more about Indigenous epistemologies and laws.

“I was invited to come and give bundle teachings to first-year [JD] students. During that journey, I talked about that traditional talking circles and what a sacred bundle is about,” says Elder Simmonds.

“My purpose was to help ground the students, through their journey at the Faculty of Law, so that they would be able to keep the continuity of their inner being, maintain balance and centredness,” she says.

“The students are very interested because I'm offering them an opportunity to come and form a cohort of support and learn how we traditionally come to a talking circle and what the purpose is, giving them an opportunity to be non-academic, but authentic in who they are as human beings.”

Elder Simmonds also engages with JD students in the classroom by holding opening and closing ceremonies to help set the intention of their learning. She also leads talking circles where students can process their thoughts and feelings around their studies and how they will carry that knowledge into their practice when they become lawyers. She says the students’ future decision-making will impact Indigenous people all over Turtle Island, and through continued dialogue, Indigenous people and allies can create a new 21st century vision for the justice system.

“By engaging with law, they're learning about the things taught to the Truth and Reconciliation [Commission]. Some of it is harsh to hear, and some are hearing it for the first time,” she says.

“We reviewed books by Indigenous writers around issues of law and gave them an opportunity to voice how they're feeling, processing, to come to an understanding, but not be traumatized by it...to carry forward in their work and envision a future of how they can impact the justice system.”

JD student Jane Fallis Cooper says the teachings on the bundle were a highlight of her first year, for both the lessons and for the relationships formed, especially in a virtual year. As a non-Indigenous student, Fallis Cooper adds the teachings on Indigenous legal traditions are crucial to students’ understanding of Canadian law.

“It has been wonderful to connect, raise issues, and discuss our experiences at U of T Law. The sessions gave students space to share, learn beading and traditional land teachings,” says Fallis Cooper.

“The sessions are always responsive to the needs of the group and students and Elder Constance has been so generous with her time. These sessions are a sort of antithesis to the stereotype of law school as a cold, unfeeling place, and has provided students with care and community.”

Carling agrees.

“We want to create deep, supportive and long-term friendships through these teachings. As Indigenous people, we know that relationships are all that we are. I think the pandemic has made this teaching apparent to Indigenous and settler folks alike."

The Faculty of Law received support for the Elder-in-Residence through U of T’s Office of Indigenous Initiatives with funding from the Postsecondary Education Fund for Aboriginal Learners (PEFAL).

National Indigenous Peoples' Day, June 2018: Indigenous Law Students' Association (ILSA) members, adjunct professor Kerry Wilkins with Elder Simmonds (photo Jesse Johnston)