Nancy Sandy from Williams Lake First Nation is the director of a new Indigenous Law and Justice Institute at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont.
“It is very exciting work for me,” said Sandy, who has been an assistant professor at Lakehead’s Bora Laskin Faculty of Law since 2018 teaching Aboriginal law and Indigenous legal tradition.
“The creation of this institute is an amazing thing because Aboriginal law is one of the faculty’s mandates.”
Aboriginal law is distinct from Indigenous law, as it is made by the Canadian state about Aboriginal rights under Section 35, whereas Indigenous laws emanates from within a nation and is primarily drawn from the land and expressed in the nation’s language, she explained.
“Other people might disagree with me, but that’s what I believe.”
A lawyer, herself, Sandy provided an example of what a legal process might involve under Indigenous law.
When looking at the land and the pollution of waterways, the waterways tell human beings they have to do things differently, in order to keep those waters flowing entirely to promote continual life, she explained.
Not recognizing the life of other beings on the land and waters that humans rely upon is an oppression, she added.
“Us as human beings aren’t the be-all and end-all. We shouldn’t consider ourselves above all other life.”
As the director, she will be responsible for getting the institute up and running with an aim to revitalize the Indigenous laws of the Anishinaabe and Métis in the Thunder Bay area.
“We don’t know what it is, so we have to do the research and partner with the community to do the research.”
A virtual pipe ceremony celebrated the beginning of the institute, but was held in Sugar Cane through Zoom with participants in Thunder Bay and Ottawa.
Sandy graduated from the University of British Columbia law school in 1987 and completed a masters of law degree in 2011 from the University of Victoria.
Her preference was not to be a litigator going into the court room, so primarily she has worked for First Nations political organizations.
“My education benefited me beyond anything I can say,” she said, noting she became the chief of her community and was involved in treaty negotiations and Aboriginal rights issues.
She has also dedicated many years to working in the area of child safety.
Through the Indigenous Perspectives Society in Victoria she helped develop training for social workers who worked for agencies such as Denisiqi Services Society and Knucwentwecw Society in Williams Lake.
“I’ve been involved with that specific work since probably 2003 right up until 2018. I worked with many First Nations in the province developing policy or developing curriculum or strategic planning.”
Before Lakehead University, she had been a sessional instructor at the University of Northern British Columbia, College of New Caledonia in Quesnel and at Cariboo College in Williams Lake before it became Thompson Rivers University.
She said she went to Lakehead primarily because of her interest in Indigenous law.
Throughout her career she has written about her own people at Sugar Cane — the T’exelcemc — about their laws from their perspective and world views as opposed to that of provincial law.
“I am really not comfortable with picking up a piece of legislation and making it brown for instance,” Sandy said.
Another effort has been to become fluent in Secwepemc because she believes in order for First Nations people to be fully recognized as nations they need to be self-determining, and in order to be self-determining she needs to know her language.
Speaking Secwepemc was banned for a time period in B.C. and as a result, Sandy’s mother Anastasia never taught her children it because she was afraid they would be punished.
“In my master’s thesis, I talked about my mom and it was heart-wrenching. She did one thing to protect us to make sure we were safe and that was not teaching us our language. It’s a violent act to have our language taken away because that was our identity.”
Changes have been made in how the language is being taught to promote fluency, she added, noting the fourth dictionary is being developed as well as new curriculum.
Sandy said in other jurisdictions such as the U.S. and especially in New Zealand, people are writing papers, master’s and doctorate theses in their Indigenous language.
She credits her mother’s teachings for inspiring her to pursue becoming a lawyer.
“Growing up she taught us there’s no such thing as can’t. It used to be really frustrating, but it really came home to me when I started on my journey. She was the one who taught me that we had rights, that we are human beings just like everyone else.”
Canada’s Department of Justice is providing $437,139 for the faculty of law to launch the program.