Considering Aboriginal rights

- January 31, 2014

Sheila Watt-Cloutier speaking to IDEALaw conference attendees. (Sher Scott photos)
Sheila Watt-Cloutier speaking to IDEALaw conference attendees. (Sher Scott photos)

On any given day, the Weldon Law Building is a space teeming with potential. Ideas, dedication, willpower and an unwillingness to accept injustice flow through the halls and the minds of students. Last weekend, a group of the IDEALaw organizing committee facilitated a connection with the community to focus that energy on Aboriginal rights.

“IDEALaw brings the legal community together with the broader community to touch on issues that not only have legal significance, but also a tangible, significant social connection,” explained Emilie Coyle, the event’s MC.

The conference theme “Reflect, Connect, Engage” inspired speakers, artists and discourse throughout the weekend.

Art unveiling

The conference commenced Friday evening with the unveiling of a landscape by local Mi’kmaq artist Tayla Paul. The painting, commissioned by the Aboriginal Law Student Association, has some familiar geographical characteristics but depicts a place where a more spiritual connection to the land exists.

“It conveys a connection to the land, but not the traditional connection propagated by realistic landscapes,” Paul explained to the audience. “It’s not representing any specific place, it’s representing a different place — a place that can’t actually be developed — a place that I’m inviting everyone to contemplate.”

Tayla Paul (right) with student Victor Carter-Julian, who suggested Paul for the commissioned piece.

Following the unveiling, attendees took time to peruse the collection of art displayed in the halls and some classrooms, on loan from Friends United. The organization works to provide exposure to emerging Aboriginal artists by connecting with venues to display the collection. The law students in attendance were unanimous that the collection changed the mood of the space, inspiring greater creativity and discussion.

The display included work from artists David Brooks, Chelsea Brooks, Jay Bell Redbird, Lorne Julien, Sandra Simon, Fancy Peterpaul, Darren Julian and Amanda Julian.

Reframing the human rights debate

Later Friday evening, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Nobel Peace Prize nominee and former chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, delivered an inspiring keynote address to a packed hall. Watt-Cloutier stressed the importance of putting a human face on issues and telling the story of the people whose rights are being infringed.

“Reframing the human rights debate in terms of fundamental human rights and connections … focuses on humanity and not just economics,” she explained. “There is no heartbeat to [international environmental] conventions.”

Watt-Cloutier calls for solutions that “culture-match” the communities they are trying to help. For example, it may not be sustainable to revive a community that has traditionally relied on hunting by creating a mining economy.  

“I’m not sure how it builds back people to dig up what you have always relied on — it’s not just about creating jobs.”

By recognizing the people behind the problem, and working on solutions that fit with a culture, Watt-Cloutier urged that the Inui way of life can be part of a larger global solution.  

“Why would we be the ones to change?” she asked. “Why, when the world is trying to wean off oil, should we embrace it?”

A weekend of insights

Organizers integrated traditional culture into the weekend, including opening each day with a prayer from Elder Eileen Brooks and drumming from PEI group the Lone Cry Singers.  

The Lone Cry Singers are led by Tim Sock, who is a drug and alcohol addictions councillor in his community. The remainder of the group — Koady Sock, Drezmond Cudmore, and Parker Larkin — are youth who have committed to being drug and alcohol free as they travel throughout the country sharing their music.

The Lone Cry Singers perform.

Saturday saw many more inspiring speakers including Kent Roach, Katherine Irngaut and Justice Anne S. Derrick, and topics ranged from Aboriginal offenders in the justice system, to income equality, to residential schools. Ursula Johnson also gave a unique endurance performance, singing for four hours to honour the indigenous women who act as protectors of their communities.

Dean Kim Brooks stressed her thanks to the student organizers, Tayla Paul, the honoured speakers and guests, and everyone involved in making conference possible.

For more information on IDEALaw, visit its Facebook page.


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