Manitoba lawyers will soon have to take mandatory training on Indigenous rights and history as part of a new requirement from the Law Society of Manitoba.
The one-time, mandatory training is a new requirement from the Law Society of Manitoba, which regulates the legal profession in the province, to ensure all lawyers in Manitoba have a common knowledge base on Indigenous issues, said Alissa Schacter, equity officer and policy counsel for the Law Society of Manitoba.
The law society believes having this education is a matter of competence, she said.
“Lawyers need to have this understanding of the place that we live, its history and the people who lived here prior to European contact in order to be able to assist their clients and represent them effectively,” she said.
“So it’s partly a matter of public confidence in the legal system, in the profession and the administration of justice.”
The requirement is in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Call to Action 27 which calls on law societies in Canada to ensure that lawyers receive appropriate training on Indigenous history and culture.
It’s been in the works since 2021, when the law society created its Indigenous advisory committee.
All lawyers in Manitoba will be required to complete it regardless of their area of practice, something the committee vice-chair and lawyer Jessica Saunders feels is important.
“Anyone who walks on this land should know its history,” said Saunders, who is a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation.
“Particularly as a lawyer, it’s important to know the law, but it’s also important to know the context for the law and the reason why you have, you know, a simple fee [ownership] or Crown land is through treaty or through these agreements and relationships with Indigenous peoples.”
The course will be launched on Oct. 1 for members of the Law Society of Manitoba, who will then have 18 months to complete it.
Lawyers who refuse to take it could face disciplinary action, but Schacter said the response so far has been positive and she doesn’t think it will come to that.
What the course is
The training required by the Law Society of Manitoba will consist of The Path, an online course that teaches Indigenous cultural competency through a series of online modules.
It was created in 2018 and is meant to give people a broad overview of Canadian history from an Indigenous perspective, as well as Indigenous culture, world views and contemporary issues, said Jennifer David, a senior consultant at the Ottawa-based NVision Insight group who led the development of the course.
“It’s really meant for any Canadian working in any sector,” she said.
The goal of the course is to help advance reconciliation by giving people some basic education, she said.
“How can we restore relationships when one party of that relationship knows almost nothing about the other party, or what they do know is misconceptions, stereotypes, racist attitudes and tropes?” she said.
“So education is that very first step.”
Creating better relationships
Having this training could help lawyers establish better relationships with their Indigenous clients, and in turn, better represent them in court, said Christopher Gamby with the Criminal Defense Lawyers Association of Manitoba.
“Sometimes if there are things that are lost in translation or if there’s something maybe that we’re not aware of culturally, if there’s a blind spot, that could obviously create some problems and maybe we’re not going to be as effective at representing that person as we might otherwise be,” he said.
He said members of his association are by and large happy to take the course.
“In particular with Indigenous people who are brought before the courts on criminal charges, I think it’s important that they have a good working relationship with whoever their lawyer is,” he said.
“So I do think it would help. It would help me personally to understand better so that I can better engage with those clients.”
Law societies in Alberta, British Columbia and Yukon have also made Indigenous cultural competency training mandatory for their members, while law schools like Robson Hall at the University of Manitoba are making similar courses mandatory for graduates.
Educating lawyers about Indigenous issues is still a relatively new concept, so law societies can play an important role in filling that gap in knowledge, said Marc Kruse, Indigenous legal studies co-ordinator at Robson Hall.
“Even people who have been practicing for 30 years, this is information that they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to have before,” he said.
“I think it will help bring about an understanding of why we encounter the sort of issues that we see within the justice system for Indigenous peoples.”