Understanding and advocating for Indigenous law in Canada

June 27, 2017 by Amy Chen - A&S Office of Advancement

This year we celebrate Canada’s sesquicentennial, but 2017 also marks a time for reflection and reconciliation, as Canada looks to advance a renewed nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples. Arts & Science spoke with Sasha Boutilier,  Jackman Humanities Institute Undergraduate Fellow, to find out how scholarships are helping to enhance student understanding of Indigenous politics and law in Canada.

When did you first become interested in indigenous law?

I was born in Canada but moved to Chicago when I was five years old. I came back in 2013 to study at the University of Toronto. I very much idealized Canada as a beacon of human rights and multiculturalism. The summer after first year I did a work-study placement with Professor Deborah McGregor, who was cross-appointed between the Department of Geography and Centre for Indigenous Studies at U of T. I ended up transcribing interviews with members of the Nipissing First Nation. That experience really exposed me to parts of Canada’s history and society that I had never encountered before and affected me on a very personal level. It challenged the Canada that I knew, and I began to think about what I could do to reconcile the difference between my idealized notion of Canada and the reality of Canada’s tragic treatment of Indigenous peoples.

Do you want to pursue a career in this area?

Yes. I definitely see myself working to support Indigenous self-determination and Indigenous land rights in particular. I’m particularly interested in the principle of free, prior and informed consent, which the Canadian government has recently pledged to implement and has gained increasing acceptance in the international community. However, there are still numerous land rights violations all over the world and there really needs to be broader acceptance of that standard. I am excited to continue my studies in this area and advocate for such change pursuing my J.D. this fall at New York University School of Law where I will be studying as an Institute for International Law and Justice Joyce Lowinson Scholar.

How has being awarded the Jackman Humanities Institute Undergraduate Fellowship influenced and helped with your goals?

The JHI Fellowship is unique because it broadens horizons. Interacting and sharing weekly lunch lectures with the other fellows has encouraged me to think in a very inter-disciplinary way. The JHI facilitates a really diverse community of faculty, grad students, and undergrads. There is a lot of engagement with faculty, and I’m very grateful for the support of my thesis advisor Professor Jennifer Nedelsky. My thesis focuses on the resurgence of Indigenous law in Canada, particularly constitutions drafted by Indigenous communities for their own governance. It has been a pleasure to work in an environment where undergraduate research is supported and emphasized.

You’ve also received the J. Stefan Dupré Memorial Scholarship in Canadian Politics. What does this scholarship mean to you?

U of T can be a difficult place to excel. Scholarships like this are very helpful in allowing me to focus on my studies rather than worrying so much about working to support myself. Beyond the financial, it is also very affirming on a personal level. To have someone come along and say ‘you are doing really well’ — for the university and donors to care about that—is really heartwarming. The confidence that can inspire is immense. It can really set you on the right path and keep you going that way.