Strategic plan launch sees USask Indigenous Law Centre expand courses and student supports

Supporting student success has always been first and foremost for the University of Saskatchewan (USask) Indigenous Law Centre.

Founded in 1975, the Indigenous Law Centre (then called the Native Law Centre) started as a program to attract Indigenous students into accessing legal education. Since then, the program has graduated close to 1800 students from law programming, in addition to providing support every step of the way through access to Knowledge-Keepers and Elders as well as counselling and health services.

Now, the Indigenous Law Centre is preparing a bold expansion with year-round course offerings, a community design lab and a research centre, with a national vision and a new Board of Advisors to help meet that goal.

The first appointments to the Board of Advisors are Senator Murray Sinclair, Cree Court Judge Gerald Morin and Maria Campbell, author, who has agreed to expand her current role as cultural advisor to the law school. This brilliant panel, along with future members, will support and guide the roll-out of the new programs and provide vital links into communities beyond the university.

“This involvement is hugely exciting for us,” said ILC Associate Director Marilyn Poitras. “Between our advisors, our alumni and the communities we work with, we will be able to meet the emerging and future needs for of students and communities. It is time to rethink the way we deliver and think about law, to be much more inclusive of Indigenous traditions.”

As a graduate of both the Indigenous Law Centre and the USask College of Law as well as Harvard Law School, Marilyn Poitras is keenly aware of the growing need for access to Indigenous law and education. Brought on as associate director of the Centre in July, 2019, Poitras says the program is key for those students looking to advance their careers in what is both an exciting and burgeoning field of law.

“The summer law program was beloved to our graduates and they are very protective of it. However they have also told us that needs of the legal system and of communities have changed substantially in recent decades so we are re-designing our role and courses to meet them,” said Poitras.

“Our courses have been instrumental in assisting so many students get into law schools. We need to expand that now and ensure that there is access to legal education and access to Indigenous laws for Indigenous students as well as everyone else,” said Poitras. “We need to develop the capacity for Indigenous law to be attainable and applicable in the justice system."

That means expanded credited transsystemic law course offerings, land-based learning opportunities, a graduate program, more traditional teachers involved in course delivery, web based courses, as well as a focus for those students interested in becoming paralegals, all the while ensuring that students are supported in their learning. This expanded mandate and renewed commitment is guided by the launch of a new Strategic Plan for the Indigenous Law Centre, which includes think-tank resources to support Indigenous communities and an expanded program of research, publications and Indigenous law keeping.

For College of Law Dean Martin Phillipson, this development is a natural evolution for a college committed to enrolling, educating and graduating Indigenous law students.

“The College of Law supports the growth and expansion that is being fostered within the Indigenous Law Centre and we look forward to working with our stakeholders to create a new legal curriculum with comprehensive programming and enhanced research and publications in the areas of Aboriginal and Indigenous Law,” said Phillipson.

While the 2020 summer courses through the Indigenous Law Centre were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centre is looking to expand those supports that are already in place in order to ensure that students can be more successful in their studies. They are planning for expanded course offerings in summer 2021.