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A seat at the table

On a mild and rainy Wednesday in March, Professor Naiomi Metallic took eight students in her Aboriginal Law seminar course on a field trip to the Nova Scotia Archives, located just down the street from the Schulich School of Law on University Avenue. They were there to tour the facility’s research holdings, including the Indian Treaties Collection.

One of the artifacts was the original 1749 renewal at Chebucto of the Treaty of 1725. Prof. Metallic and her students stood quietly around the treaty, reading its handwritten script and absorbing its historic significance. It was signed at Chebucto (Kjipuktuk, now Halifax) on Aug. 15, 1749 by Joannes Pedousaghtigh, Chief of the tribe of Chignecto Indians, and deputies from the Chiefs of the St. Johns Indians, and witnessed by members of His Majesty’s Council for Nova Scotia. The signing ceremony was held on board HMS Beaufort in Halifax Harbour, and the table used for the ceremony is now in the Legislative Council Chamber at Province House in Halifax.

“I’ve spent days here at the Archives going through government documents while working on different cases,” she told the students later, during the lecture portion of the two-hour class. “Sometimes you find nothing, and sometimes you find gems.” Throughout the interactive class, as Prof. Metallic discussed the pro bono case on traditional hunting rights that she had argued for Saint John Mi’kmaq Stephen Bernard in November before a hearing at the New Brunswick Court of Appeal, she encouraged an atmosphere that was as conversational as it was tutorial. Several times, Prof. Metallic paused to ask the students, “What do you think?” as the conversation related to the readings she had assigned, and the students confidently engaged with her in their responses.

When they discussed the protection of Indigenous language, Prof. Metallic and one of her students admitted that they both felt guilty that they can only speak a little of their native language, though recognizing this was not a personal failing but a product of historical attempts to destroy Indigenous languages and cultures. “One of my life’s goals is to be fluent in Mi’kmaq,” she said.

A new chair

Prof. Metallic is Dalhousie’s inaugural Chancellor’s Chair in Aboriginal Law and Policy, a position she assumed last September. Her return to the Weldon Law Building’s classrooms on a larger scale was a homecoming—she had been a member of the law school’s Indigenous Blacks & Mi’kmaq (IB&M) Initiative, which was established in 1989 to increase representation of those groups in the legal profession, earning her law degree in 2005.

The Chancellor’s Chair in Aboriginal Law and Policy was made possible thanks to a generous donation by the Honourable Anne McLellan, Dalhousie’s seventh Chancellor and a former deputy prime minister of Canada. The idea came from a conversation that McLellan and Dalhousie President Richard Florizone had about creating initiatives at the university that would promote diversity and inclusion; in particular, they were seeking an opportunity where McLellan could make a difference. She had met Prof. Metallic briefly through their work on Dal’s Board of Governors, which coincided with her conversation with Dr. Florizone.

“The President made me aware that Naiomi might be interested in coming to the law school full-time,” says McLellan. “The stars aligned, and we decided to create the Chair.” That alignment was due in part to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Call to Action 28, which calls upon Canadian law schools to require all law students to take a course in Aboriginal peoples and the law.

“Dal takes the TRC Calls to Action seriously, in particular Action 28,” said Dr. Florizone at Prof. Metallic’s official welcome reception in October. “We’re proud of what we’ve done to foster diversity and inclusiveness at Dalhousie, but we know there’s more we need to do.”

For law school Dean Camille Cameron, having Prof. Metallic assume the Chancellor’s Chair is a positive step on the law school’s path to greater diversity and inclusiveness. “The contributions that Prof. Metallic is making in the classroom, in our curriculum and in building relationships between the law school and our Aboriginal communities in this region are exciting and exactly why the Chancellor’s Chair was established,” she says.

Anne McLellan ( Aaron Mackenzie Fraser photo)

“This Chair is a small part of a long journey toward diversity and inclusiveness, but that journey isn’t over by any means.”

McLellan did her undergrad at Dal, then earned a Law degree here in 1974. “I’m a proud Dal Law grad,” she says. At Prof. Metallic’s welcome reception, McLellan told those who had gathered in the Weldon Law Building’s atrium that when she was in law school, there was no recognition of the contribution of Indigenous peoples on campus. “This Chair is a small part of a long journey toward diversity and inclusiveness, but that journey isn’t over by any means.”

McLellan believes that the law school should be acknowledged for its IB&M Initiative, and that both that program and Dalhousie have come a long way over the years in promoting diversity and inclusiveness. “Now was a good time for the law school to take ownership of a Chancellor’s Chair in Aboriginal Law and Policy and become a leader in Aboriginal law, policy and research,” she says. “Naiomi is the ideal first Chair—she is Mi’kmaq and so vibrant, energetic, dynamic and talented. She’s a great fit.”

Although the Chair is physically seated in the law school, it’s intended to be interdisciplinary, which means that Prof. Metallic will collaborate not only with her Schulich School of Law colleagues but across Dalhousie faculties and beyond.

Improving lives

Naiomi Metallic hails from the Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation located on the Gaspé coast of Quebec, known as the Gespegewagi district of Mi’kma’ki. After earning her LLB from Dal, she graduated from the University of Ottawa’s civil law program the following year, in 2006, then became the first Mi’kmaq person to clerk at the Supreme Court of Canada. She also holds an LLM from Osgoode Hall Law School at York University. Prior to accepting a tenure-track faculty position at the Schulich School of Law last July, she was a senior associate with Burchells LLP in Halifax, where she began practicing in 2008. That was also the year she started guest lecturing at her alma mater.

Prof. Metallic carefully considered her transition from lawyer to academic. “After nearly 10 years of rewarding practice in Aboriginal law, I decided to make the move to academia to continue my work for First Nations in a different way—through teaching, writing and speaking about the issues facing Aboriginal peoples in Canada, and how the law can be a tool for reconciliation and improving the lives of Indigenous peoples.”

Prof. Metallic is a proud IB&M Initiative alumna. “I feel very fortunate to build on the great work of the IB&M and to push for positive change for Mi’kmaq and other Aboriginal peoples,” she says. However, she hasn’t stopped practising law altogether; she is “keeping a toe in practice” at Burchells with such cases as Stephen Bernard’s (he and his legal team are currently waiting to receive the judges’ verdict).

Making connections

When Prof. Metallic was interviewed for this story in early March, a semester and a half into her role as Chair, she had already ticked off many of the items on her 2016–2018 strategic plan. They include contributing to teaching and research in the area of Aboriginal Law, developing a new course in Indigenous Governance, building relationships between the university and Aboriginal communities in the Maritimes, creating research internship positions and speaking at national conferences on Aboriginal issues.

Naiomi Metallic ( Aaron Mackenzie Fraser photo)

“I feel very fortunate to build on the great work of the IB&M and to push for positive change for Mi’kmaq and other Aboriginal peoples.”

Case in point: last October Prof. Metallic and eight of her students, most of whom are members of the IB&M Initiative, attended the 28th annual Indigenous Bar Association (IBA) conference in Vancouver. The theme, Redefining Relationships With or Without You, created an opportunity for industry, government, academics and legal practitioners to discuss how to move forward with a commitment to redefine Canada and its relationships with Indigenous peoples’ lands, laws and institutions. Prof. Metallic spoke on two conference panels. The first was with a group of Indigenous academics, where she presented a draft paper looking at whether Canada should pass legislation recognizing Indigenous self-government (she believes it should). The second was with a group of women assembled by the Canadian Human Rights Commission, where she discussed the use of human rights law to address inequities in funding and services in First Nations communities.

It was the first time that Prof. Metallic and her students had attended the IBA’s annual event, where, in addition to the speakers, they enjoyed listening to Inuit throat singing. “We met fabulous Indigenous lawyers, academics and students,” she says. “There was a beautiful element of incorporating traditional culture and story. It was a wonderful recharging and re-energizing event.” Prof. Metallic plans to work with the IBA to co-organize October’s conference in Halifax, along with the Dalhousie Indigenous Law Students’ Association.

Looking ahead

Right now Prof. Metallic’s main challenge is balancing her teaching and research responsibilities with media and speaking-engagement requests. “Being too busy is a great challenge to have!” she says. “I’m enjoying speaking and presenting, and it’s nice to be wanted and recognized. I’m encouraged by how much people have a desire to learn about Indigenous issues.”

Speaking engagements include addressing the Canadian Association of Law Libraries in Ottawa about reconciliation and the role librarians can play, as well as the Atlantic Canada Human Rights and Labour Law Conference in Halifax and the Canadian Bar Association’s Aboriginal Law Conference in Winnipeg. Part of her summer homework will be working on a chapter of the second edition of the bestselling casebook Administrative Law in Context. Her research includes writing about how Canadian laws and institutions can be reformed in order to give Indigenous peoples greater control over matters that affect them.

“I’m excited about the opportunities for research and collaboration with my law school colleagues, as well as with people in other Dalhousie disciplines,” says Prof. Metallic. “I’m most passionate about the representation of Indigenous peoples and diversity within key societal institutions like law schools, the legal profession and the judiciary. The Chair gives me a wonderful opportunity to move this work along with more authority and legitimacy.”

Of all her responsibilities, Prof. Metallic is especially enthusiastic about teaching. In addition to Aboriginal Law, she teaches Constitutional Law, Indigenous Governance and Aboriginal Peoples and she coaches the Kawaskimhon Aboriginal Law Moot, which was held in Calgary in March. Last September, she introduced Blanket Exercises—an experiential learning activity designed to increase awareness of Aboriginal history in Canada—into the first-year Law students’ curriculum.

“I love the students,” says Prof. Metallic. “They’re engaged and thoughtful about Indigenous issues, so I enjoy our discussions. I can’t wait for them all to become judges! Thanks to my students, I’m encouraged about what the future of the legal profession will look like.”