IDEALaw: Aboriginal Rights in the Spotlight


On January 24th-25th 2014 academics, practitioners, community members, and students have been gathering at the Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University to discuss and examine the state of Aboriginal rights in Canada. The biennial IDEALaw conference has never seen a comparable response in numbers and media interest. The line up of speakers, cultural events, and discussion focus of the conference has created a buzz in Halifax.

Organized by students, the conference attempts to address a number of pressing issues facing Aboriginals. Environmental concerns, poverty and criminal law issues, and police and institutional responses to protest are all on the bill. The conference was develped to encourage discussion and openness to new approaches, different perspectives, and engaging the public in legal and political action in response to community concerns. While the conference is ongoing, all talks thus far have addressed the chilling effects of organised and concerted rights abuses on the civil liberties and human rights of Aboriginals in Canada and abroad.

The conference opened with a fascinating and rousing talk by Sheila Watt-Cloutier on human rights. Her experience as head of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference and own experiences as an advocate for Inuit in Canada and overseas gave a fascinating and “on the ground” perspective on alternative ways to perceive climate change. Her commentary on and analysis of the success attached to the ICC’s Petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Seeking Relief from Violations Resulting from Global Warming Caused by Acts and Omissions of the United States set the tone for continued discussion into the night. Of particular interest to most was the role of democratic and social rights and their protection in communities facing significant and overwhelming changes due to environmental impact.


Saturday morning was launched with a moving panel featuring Judge Anne Derrick, Francine Pierro, and Robert Syliboy discussing sentencing and resources for Aboriginals in light of recent changes to mandatory minimum sentencing. The variety of perspectives and personal experiences discussed highlighted the significant limits to social support and rights enforcement for incarcerated Aboriginals. All parties noted some improvement in access to rights-based services (such as religious or spiritual council and practices) but the continued and worrying trend to differentiate on the basis of race.

Judge Derrick discussed contradictions imposed by jurisprudence on Gladue reports in sentencing and the lack of a mandatory minimum exception for Canadian judges. Francine Pierro outlined and clarified the various resources available in the Maritime provinces and across Canada for incarcerated Aboriginal offenders when seeking to return to the community. Finally Robert Syliboy discussed his own experiences in prison and changes in how Aboriginal access to religious services and supports, community supports, and counselling have changed. Of particular note was a discussion of the failures and shortcomings of both the Provincial and Federal prison system, and their different approaches to Aboriginal rights. Reconciling the two and increasing support was highlighted as a necessary and long term goal for ensuring equal access to civil for Aboriginals in the prison systems.

The second panel of the day featured Linda McQuaig and Naomi Metallic discussing poverty and income disparity in Canada. Both emphasized the increasing success of activist responses to decreased funding and unfair economic treatment of Aboriginal communities. Naomi Metallic’s recent work on the Canada v Simon case explored the significant link between Federal decision-making on social support for Aboriginals and the duty to consult and provide equal access. Long standing approaches of to discretionary resource allocation and assessment are finally receiving attention through a rights-based approach. McQuaig and Metallic emphasized the increasing need for rights-based discussion and open dialogue on economic issues facing Aboriginal communities. The link between political engagement, free and productive speech and dialogue, and self-identification and organisation cannot be underestimated.

Still on the bill for today is a talk from Kent Roach and Katherine Irngaut on residential schools; a talk from Patty Doyle and Pam Gloade on women’s protests and issues in Aboriginal communities; and a panel discussion on the limits to protester’s rights and freedom of speech in response to Aboriginal protests featuring Derek Simon and Peter Cooke.

Recordings of talks and panels, as well as print material will be made available in the near future. Check back for more info.