Monday, November 7, 2016

By Zachary Biech

Zachary Biech and three other 1L students attended the Indigenous Bar Association Conference on behalf of the Faculty of Law, and their attendance was funded by the Aboriginal Law Program.

The 2016 Indigenous Bar Association Conference was a truly enlightening experience. The Conference was held in Vancouver this year on Musqueam territory. Getting the opportunity to fly across the country to such a beautiful city to meet other people from all over Canada was incredibly exciting.

The first day of conference activities included Student Day. For the practitioners and educators, there were also professional development sessions, but for law students there was an array of networking opportunities.

The first day’s activities took place at the Musqueam Cultural Centre on a beautiful West Coast rainy day. Student Day started with a traditional Musqueam opening ceremony. For me, as a young Indigenous man only beginning to culturally reconnect and find belonging in Indigenous communities, this welcoming ceremony was very beautiful and emotional. I remain very grateful to the whole Musqueam Nation for sharing their territory and resources with us for this conference.

Blanket Exercise
The Blanket Exercise

Student Day first focused on finalizing executive positions for the new National Indigenous Law Students’ Association. There was a panel of Indigenous articling students, a law-oriented version of the Blanket Exercise, and an excellent lunch of course! I also had the opportunity to give an update to all the students about all of the Indigenous initiatives happening at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. While I was very proud to share our initiatives, I was also very impressed by the strength and innovativeness of the other Indigenous law students’ associations at their respective universities across Canada. There is definitely a growing Indigenous presence and a wave of reconciliation discussions happening at all the major law schools in Canada.

For me, Student Day was a day of belonging. There is a growing, powerful, and brilliant community of Indigenous law students and allies, and attending the conference really helped me feel like I am a part of that community. I’m so glad to know that there is a vast network of such amazing people all over Canada. I should note that at this year’s conference, there were over eighty law students, most of whom are Indigenous. This turnout was the highest ever for an IBA conference!

Student Day
Student Day

Day two took place at the River Rock Casino in the Fraser Room of the Casino’s conference center, overlooking the Fraser River with a great view of the coastal mountains. The day started with another beautiful Musqueam opening ceremony, followed by a plethora of powerful speakers, including Senator Murray Sinclair and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde, and an array of Indigenous practitioners doing amazing work on large projects, such as land claims. Senator Murray Sinclair had the best sense of humor, if you asked me.

My favorite speaker of the day was Métis lawyer and our alumna Jean Teillet, of the IBA’s Indigenous Peoples Counsel and senior counsel at Pape Salter Teillet LLP. Her optimism, creativity, and drive to move beyond the status quo had a big impact on me. Her speech, as well as the others, followed the conference topic, “Redefining Relationships With or Without You.” Overall, the idea that Indigenous laws can and ought to increasingly occupy the field in Canada was the primary message. Day two’s presentations concluded with an Inuit throat-singing performance by two conference attendees. If you have never seen Inuit throat-singing, I highly recommend it; it’s a ton of fun!

Day three continued the conversation started on day two, but the speakers took the conversation much further. I really enjoyed all the speeches, but I found Jeffery Hewitt, professor at Windsor Law School and member of Rama First Nation, to have the most intriguing speech. He gave teachings rooted in tradition on how caterpillars transform into butterflies, and compared that process to the process of reconciliation. I have felt this way about what is happening in Canada for a long time, but not through that particular image. There are special cells within caterpillars that,upon metamorphosis, cause a reaction which reforms the caterpillar into a completely new organism, the butterfly. We, as Indigenous law students, lawyers, professionals, and educators, are those cells, and our work will transform this country into something entirely new and beautiful too. This process is what reconciliation can look like, and the change is already underway.

The Indigenous legal community is growing in strength, Indigenous laws are increasingly influential, and with all of us working together, our shared world here on Turtle Island is about to undergo a great change towards reconciliation. Along with all the new friends, amazing sights, and a growing sense of belonging, those three ideas are what I walked away with from the 2016 Indigenous Bar Association conference. I am very grateful to the University Faculty of Law for funding this awesome opportunity, and I wholeheartedly recommend this opportunity to all Indigenous law students!