Ottawa law school names first indigenous elder in residence

The University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law has appointed the first indigenous elder in residence at a law school in Canada.

François Larocque says the appointment is in keeping with the new direction of the faculty, and with call to action No. 28 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
François Larocque says the appointment is in keeping with the new direction of the faculty, and with call to action No. 28 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In her new role, Claudette Commanda, who is an Algonquin Anishinabe from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation and an alumna and former instructor of the faculty, will provide knowledge and guidance to indigenous students, as well as to professors and staff. She also will lead the faculty in cultural protocols or ceremonial blessings in appropriate circumstances, and provide perspective as an indigenous elder.

Interim dean François Larocque says the appointment is in keeping with the new direction of the faculty, and with call to action No. 28 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which asks law schools to require all law students to take a course in Aboriginal people and the law, and including “skills-based training in intercultural competency.”

Last fall Ottawa’s law school introduced an Indigenous Law Stream in the Common Law Section, and has seen an increase of indigenous students. The school now has “an active and dynamic” indigenous students’ association, dean Larocque told Legal Feeds, whose members made the recommendation to engage an elder to provide guidance on, among other things, “their place in the world, and adjusting to new challenges.”

As for the school’s choice of an Algonquin elder, “I think it’s very important that law schools recognize the traditional territories of the nations on which the building stands, [and] Ottawa is on Algonquin territory,” Larocque says. “So for indigenous traditions, we should think locally.” Commanda is also “a fabulous alumna, a member of our Common Law Honour Society, and recognized as a keeper of tradition and knowledge … and culture,” he says. Commanda has most recently been assisting the school with Algonquin protocol and more, he adds, and the appointment is “a way of formalizing a very positive relationship.”

Commanda will take up her role in an advisory, part-time capacity, and she says she credits the “visionary leaders” of Ottawa’s law school, and their respect for the Algonquin people, for creating the position. She describes her new role at the school as providing cultural, spiritual, and ceremonial support to the Faculty’s aboriginal students.

“I also see my role as providing family support,” Commanda told Legal Feeds. Students leave their homes, communities and families, their ceremonies, languages and ways of life, and may experience feelings of isolation and loneliness, she notes. “I see my role as nurturing, as being there as a shoulder to lean on. Many times, that’s what we seek out our elders for,” she adds; “I find it very comforting when I’m in the presence of my elders and ceremonial people,” to be “feeling that sense of belonging and security.”

As an Ottawa Law graduate, Commanda is also well-positioned to provide academic support, calling upon on her own experience as a student, directing students to appropriate academic advisers, and acting as a liaison between aboriginal students and members of the faculty of law. She will educate the faculty on the culture and protocols of the Algonquin people, and anticipates building more programs based on Aboriginal, Algonquin and Anishinabe legal traditions.

Commanda graduated from the University of Ottawa’s faculty of arts in 1993 and its faculty of law, Common Law Section in 1997. She has taught at Ottawa’s Institute of Women’s Studies, faculty of law, faculty of education, and the Aboriginal Studies Program, teaching courses on First Nations Women, Native Education, First Nations People and History, Indigenous Traditions, and decolonization.

She is the executive director of the First Nations Confederacy of Cultural Education Centres, and previously served on the board of governors for the First Nations University of Canada. She has also served on the Kitigan Zibi band council.

“As far as I know, we are the first law school [in Canada] to have an elder in residence,” dean Larocque says. “I hope that other law schools follow suit, and that it becomes normal that law schools turn to the elders of their community for guidance on reconciliation.”

Ontario also plans to announce the opening of Ottawa’s first court for Indigenous peoples, at which Commanda will give words of welcome and a blessing as an Algonquin elder. The event is scheduled to take place tomorrow at 4 p.m. in the atrium of the Ottawa courthouse on Elgin Street, where MPP Nathalie Des Rosiers (Ottawa-Vanier) will make remarks. Commanda says the seed for such a court was planted at least 20 years ago, when she was a law student, and that it will help to ensure that Aboriginal people have fair and equitable process under the law and are aware of their rights.

Commanda is excited about her new role as indigenous elder at Ottawa’s law school; “I hold that title with humility, and great pride,” as an Algonquin, a mother and grandmother. Her community ancestors, including her own mother and grandparents, gave her a rich cultural and spiritual foundation, she says.

“I’m still learning, every day,” she adds, noting that individuals have a lifelong learning process from the cradle to the grave; “we keep on learning.”

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