The Dean of the U of T Faculty of Law, Edward Iacobucci, emailed an apology to all first-year law students in December after an assignment garnered backlash from law students for using racial stereotypes of Indigenous people. A Globe and Mail article drew attention to the story, questioning whether this was discouraging students’ real-world preparation skills.
The assignment asked students to write a legal memo about the effects that the new Child, Youth and Family Services Act would have on a hypothetical case, which involved Indigenous children in foster care, whose parents were experiencing alcohol and substance use disorders.
A recurring racial stereotype of Indigenous peoples is that they are genetically predisposed to alcohol and substance use disorders. However, there is no scientific evidence for this claim. For Indigenous communities, alcohol and substance use disorders are linked to historical social conditions, such as the trauma inflicted by colonial policies like residential schools.
The case summary states that the father had recovered and wanted to continue a relationship with his children against the wishes of the foster parents, a non-Indigenous couple who wished to end all contact between the children and their father and pursue adoption.
Along with his apology, Iacobucci has provided an alternative assignment and promised to consult with the law school’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee in the hopes of avoiding similar situations in the future.
In the Globe and Mail article, Cindy Blackstock, a McGill University professor of social work and member of the Gitksan First Nation, questioned whether students would have the capacity to take on these cases after graduation if they hadn’t already faced them in school.
Blackstock noted that the “reality is that First Nations kids are overrepresented among children in child welfare.” She further contextualized the issue as linked to “poverty, poor housing and substance misuse linked to multigenerational trauma arising from colonialism writ large and residential schools in particular.”
“Striving to be respectful in a discussion is not at all equivalent to striving to avoid discussion,” Iacobucci wrote to The Varsity. “There is no legal issue in the ‘real world’ that we would be unwilling to teach our students.”
Iacobucci further emphasized that these discussions need to occur in the proper contexts.
The President of U of T’s Students’ Law Society, Morgan Watkins, also maintained that the law school is not shying away from any tough issues. “The school hosts discussions on some very difficult cases that have involved Indigenous people… that have been in the media,” Watkins said, citing talks which concerned the cases of Colten Boushie and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
However, the assignment purely concerned instructing students on writing legal memos; the class did not delve into the history of Indigenous people in Canada or child welfare law. For this reason, Watkins believes that the assignment “really flattens and glosses over any of the context.”
Watkins explained that it’s important to ensure that students have the right “repertoire of knowledge” before giving an assignment such as this one. Watkins does not claim to speak for Indigenous students, or the student body in general, but was present for discussions surrounding the assignment.
Leslie Anne St. Amour, an Algonquin law student from U of T’s class of 2020, wrote to Law Times that there are alternative ways to introduce Indigenous law to students.
St. Amour elaborated that, “The law school has a Manager of Indigenous Initiatives who could have been consulted in the writing of the assignment in order to prevent the display of stereotypes with no context that students received.”