“Where Happiness Dwells: A History of the Dane-Zaa First Nations” (a video summary)

For the last several years, UVic Law has run a summer intensive course in Indigenous Law Research, Method and Practice. Each year, the course has been situated in the context of a different legal order. In past summers, different cohorts have engaged with Tsilqot’in, Secwepemc, Cree, and Gitxsan law. This summer, the students are engaging with Dane-zaa Law, and are reading the book Where Happiness Dwells as a primer and introduction.

Written by embedded anthropologists Robin Ridington & Gillian Riddington in collaboration with Elders of the Dane-zaa First Nations, this book is, as promised, “A History of the Dane-zaa First Nation.” The book draws on multiple voices, sources, resources, modes of engagement and forms of encounter.

I first saw this book when it was published in 2013 (when Val Napoleon suggested that I read it). At the time, I recall a set of mixed feelings in response. I was very impressed, but also a bit overwhelmed. It was, in many ways, my first exposure to a book of this sort.

By ‘of this sort’, I mean a truly comprehensive engagement with a specific Indigenous legal order, written from within that legal order, and with attention to language, gender, kinship, cosmology, spirituality, economy, politics, dispute resolution, conflicts, inter-societal engagement and more

By 2017, two more books of this kind had been published: Neil Sterritt’s, Mapping My Way Home: A Gitxsan History, and Ron Ignace and Marianne Ignace’s, Secwépemc People, Land and Laws. All three of these books belong of the bookshelf of every person living in British Columbia.

But back in 2013, with Where Happiness Dwells, I was having my first exposure to such a rich and layered text. Just about everything in the book carried some level of unfamiliarity to me (not surprising since histories such as these were certainly not part of Canadian history as taught in the educational curriculum of my secondary schooling). As I said, it felt a bit overwhelming.

Really great books are, I sometimes think, a bit like places: the more you visit with them, the more you come to see and love in them. And this book is a great book! I should thus not have been surprised at how much I have enjoyed returning to this book eight years later for a second engagement.

Now, it may simply be the case that when one has to teach with a book, one reads it with quite different eyes. Certainly, knowing that I was slotted to teach this course (with Val Napoleon and Hadley Friedland) did incentivize the reading.

Certainly, I can affirm that when reading it the second time, my pens were marking and highlighting up the text in ways that might give a librarian a stomach ache.

But there is more. I found myself appreciating how the book encourages one to think about the business of teaching and learning and Indigenous Laws, and the place of stories and storytelling in that teaching. It also invited reflection on the work of both telling and listening to stories.

I appreciated, for example, how the book not only provided multiple versions of the same origin story by Charlie Yahey, but also shared his insights about how to work with and understand such stories.

I also loved the opportunity to look more closely at stories themselves, and different genres of story telling. So too, a gift to be able to read about intersociety collaborations and conflicts through from the early days of the fur trade through to the present. It was also a gift to have men, women and children all appear in the stories and story telling.

These extensive interactions with story, song, dream and conflict also left me wondering about not only about the work I might do in the classroom, but also about my engagements with my young ‘niblings’ (Gillian Calder’s gender neutral term for ‘nieces and nephews). It got me thinking about the ways all of us (at home, with friends, in our social networks) talk to each other about laws and their place in our lives and conversations.

In the clip below, I share (with students from the summer course) some ideas about the structure of the book, and the gift of each chapter.

Rebecca gives a summary of the book

Conversations with “Legal Thinkers” (Theorists?)

What is legal theory?  And what might be its place in the life of the law student, the legal professional, or the ordinary citizen?  This is only one of the questions that Professor Julen Etxabe (Allard School of Law) takes up in his series, “Conversations with Legal Thinkers”. 

I have been ruminating on some related questions.  What is the difference between a legal thinker, and a legal theorist?  Is there a difference between “doing” legal theory, and “being” a legal theorist?   What is it to claim the label of “Legal Theorist” in one’s self-identification?  This is a question I have been reflecting on, in the aftermath of participating in Julen’s series.  If you want to listen in to the 30 minute conversation between us, you can find it here:


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I have been returning to the question of what it is to be a legal theorist, particularly after listening to the other episodes in the series, as Julen speaks with people whose thinking has shaped my own (James Boyd White, Jennifer Nedelsky, William MacNeil, Panu Minkkinen, Scott Veitch and Mark Antaki).   It was a pleasure to listen to each episode.  I felt like I had been at a lovely dinner party, with a group of brilliant legal theorists, each of whom gave me something delicious to think about it.

I feel very comfortable attaching the label ‘legal theorist’ to each of the people in the series.  But I noted that I have some lingering ambivalence about describing myself as a legal theorist.  I was comfortable imagining myself ‘doing’ theory, but floundering about the ‘being’ part of the puzzle.  So what is, I wondered, the difference between doing theory and being a  theorist?   I wondered if there were some hidden gendered presumptions about the theory/practice divide still messing about in back of my mind.  

When thinking about Julen’s series, and about claiming the word ‘theorist’ for myself, I couldn’t help but think back to 2019, and a particularly memorable iteration of the Legal Theory Workshop I had been teaching for years (aka “Law and Film”).  This course is always delicious, but that year was unusual: it was populated exclusively by female students.   

While this was not worrisome, it was somewhat unexpected.  My film courses often attracted somewhat more women than men, but it was curious that not a single man registered for it that semester.  This version was “Inuit Law and Film”, which did not signal, in my view, a gendered curriculum.  And yet, it was impossible not to have some gender theory wash across the horizon.  I wondered if the gendered composition would have any impact on how the conversation spilled out over the term. 

Feminism and intersectional feminist theorizing have been a huge defining part of my life, but this was not necessarily the case for all the students in the class. The class was in no way a homogenous group.  These women brought with them significant diversity: some students were partnered, some were single; some had children, some did not; some were young, and others older; sexual and gender identity ranged across the spectrum; several students were Indigenous, coming from different First Nations; some students were from Europe on exchange terms, while others had lived in Canada all their lives; for those identifying as Canadians, some came from families that had immigrated within a generation, and some had great-grandparents who had been part of earlier waves of settlement/colonization.  Some came to law school from sciences, some from humanities; some loved sports, some hunting, some cooking, some music, some reading. Some were deeply religious and others deeply agnostic. Some had a background in film, and others did not.  They were a profoundly diverse group of women.  They were also joined in a shared project of exploring jurisprudential and cinematic stories told of Canadian and Inuit legal orders.

Sharae Antley’s “Two-Spirited Beading Project”. She worked on this during class time.

I can say that the class ‘felt’ different.  While the politics of  feminism was not always drawn explicitly into the classroom, many of the practices of feminism seemed to be on display, in attention to the many ways the women inhabited their bodies and their minds.  From my perspective, I felt I was witnessing an unusual mixture of ‘lack of caution’, coupled with ‘increased curiosity’.  They played around with the pedagogy of teaching and learning.  They disrupted the space and expectations of classroom.  They arrived early for class, and moved the desks around, creating a kind of 5 sided pentagon so that each person was fully visible to the others.  They also brought ‘projects’ with them to class to work on while we talked:  some knitted or crocheted, some brought beadwork projects, others drew or doodled, and all engaged with the films, reading and each other.  There was significant laughter, and often snacks!

There were also mothers.  That semester, my mother Arta Johnson had come to spend time with our family, and so she also joined the class.   This seemed to empower the students, and so when their own mothers were visiting, they would bring them to class as well.  So we had a space of multiple mothers.  This opened space for additional layers of connection and conversation, as the older women shared stories or opinions drawn from their own experience and related to the films and questions they raised.

Sometimes mothers push you to think or try something new.  And one push was to claim the label of theorist.  Early in the term, when a number of students expressed some fear around theory and theorizing, Arta challenged them.  She told them not to shy away, but to claim the label of theorist for themselves.  They were, she asserted, already theorists!  I have a vivid memory of Arta sitting beside one thoughtful (and quiet) young woman, trying to encourage her to say the words out loud, “I am a theorist! I am a theorist!” They were both laughing.  It was so fun and funny!

I think often of that class, of the lovely students in what became a rich space of community.  When I talked with my mother about the class, she said:

“I too have thought often about that class of only women. We didn’t have to explain ourselves and went right into feminist theory.  In looking back at that space, we never had to apologize for being women. That is what woman do all too often.  I’d like to express an opinion, but it comes from my experience as being a woman, of having had children, where I don’t want to offend/invalidate the men in the group. And so I hold the view in. In this classroom, I didn’t.”

I wonder if some of that was going on?  In that exclusively female space of the classroom (an occurrence that was random and provisional) had gender momentarily dropped out of our fields of vision, inviting us to step onto the field of legal theory in different ways, less fettered by our own inherited presumptions about the possible?   I think often of Arta telling not only the students but also me that the temporary and gendered space of our classroom was a place to play with theory, a place to be theorists.  And that was a thought that stuck with me: that there can be power and joy in imagining oneself as both a student of legal theory and also as a legal theorist.  I like that.  I think she might be right.  In paying attention to the world around us, in engaging with our experiences (expected and unexpected), in looking to what can be learned and incorporated from the experiences, are we not practicing theory?  And being theorists?

Just a thought. 

Taming of the Shrew and Intimate Violence

maxresdefault-2Back in 2016, I went to see the Stratford Festival version of “The Taming of the Shrew” at our local cinema (part of the “Events” programming).   I started a post, and then got distracted, and never finished it.  It sat lonely in my “drafts” folder all this time.  I would occasionally think of finishing the post, but then remind myself that the season had ended, and folks were unlikely to see that version,

Flash forward to COVID times, and my mother Arta tells me that this very version is now on the web!  on Youtube!  Indeed, she has been watching it with the “niblings” (gender-inclusive term Gillian Calder uses for ‘nieces and nephews’…I love that it rhymes with ‘siblings’)

Here are two of Arta’s reports on that viewing experience:


She reminded me that I had started a post.  And I decided that though I might finish it later, I would share with her the start of the post.  so here it is.

———–FLASHBACK to 2016 ——————-

I went to the local theatre (yes, with my two teenaged boys) to watch the Stratford version of “The Taming of the Shrew”.  Both amazing and interesting.  Full kudos to the actors.  Truly amazing craft.  [a great review of the performance can be found here:


Of course, I am always left reflecting on the ways things link up with each other.  I am teaching criminal law this term, and so am deep in the case law of sexual assault, drunken assault, provocation, and self-defence.  Teaching criminal law is indeed an experience of swimming in a world of broken and damaged female bodies.

And so, what to make of this most light of Shakespeare plays, with its deep core of misogyny, with it taming of a woman’s will?  How do I sit that alongside battered woman’s syndrome (which i will be teaching 4 days hence), and alongside my taking of my boys to see the play?

How do i work with the mixture of pleasure and critique as this 420 year old play slides its way into the present?

The final scene, the famous final scene in which she tells the other woman that it is their place to obey their husbands?!  Well, in advance of going, I wondered how the troupe would pull this off?  How would she  (Deborah Hay as Katherine) work this scene?  How my boys would hear the scene?  How would I set it up in advance to prep them (my boys) for a conversation about what we learn in the present from this engagement from the past?

The play was stellar.

And if I was worried about that final text?  Well…. the actors were amazing.   She delivered “the words”, but somehow, in that delivery…. it was a combination of her tone, and his responses… she somehow delivered them in ways that enabled him (Petruchio) to take on a visible recognition of shame at what he had done, and hold out the possibility that he needed to change.   Interesting.   Not an ending that validated the abuse… but one that make the pattern of abuse visible.  Certainly opened space for lots of conversation.   If you get a chance, go take a look!

Building Community in COVID-19 TIMES

COVID-19.    Changing (at least for now) the ways we can teach.   So this is a post for the teachers out there!…

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Course Description, Objectives & Evaluation

One of the courses I teach (at the University of Victoria Faculty of Law) is the Graduate Seminar in Law & Society (aka “Legal Theory”).  I adore teaching this class, which I am sure functions much like every other such class across the country: a relatively small number of LLM and PhD students from different countries, with different disciplinary backgrounds and different research questions.  We meet once a week for three hours for a (mostly) joyful engagement with theory and theorists.

[Click on these links if you want to see the course description or syllabus from the 2018 version of the course].

That is the ‘formal education piece’ of the class.  But we also meet in the hallways, at public lectures, in the library, and in each other’s kitchens.   So there is significant time for serendipitous conversation, and to elaborate on ideas, methods, and strategies for study.

“Place” matters, and one can not under-estimate the importance of all of these small moments in the building of relations, communities, and even ideas.  But this year, because of COVID-19, Law 501 will be fully online.  Until the travel restrictions lift, we will be building our classroom community across a span of 14 time zones.   A challenge.

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The Reading List for the Course

There is so much “housekeeping” in the work of research and theory.  If you don’t do that work, the house is a mess.  In both the intellectual and material worlds, the work of cleaning up never ends, of course. But it is nice to have the house clean when it is time for a party.   My hope is that our synchronous online conversation space will be an amenable and tidy space for fun.

We need a space for the side conversations, the office visits, and the chats by the photocopier.    What I don’t want to do is use up that limited face-to-face time that Zoom offers us with me talking to them about tools.  Or rather, I think those conversations happen best one-on-one in the office.  So how to replicate that kind of conversation? My hope is that a collection of small videos might help create those side conversations, to support the on-line class community to develop a shared vocabulary about tools and methods.  And the actual online engagements can be a rockin’ Theory Party!

And thus, the video below.   In the spirit of sharing, here is my first attempt to create a small side conversation about how and why the students are asked to summarize the readings, and how I would suggest they do it, and think about it.

Want to See More of the Context?

Click on these links if you would like to see the course description or syllabus from the 2018 version of the course, developed in collaboration with the wonderful Mark Zion (whose critical mind also generated the playful and provocative titles for each week’s engagement, which make another valuable contribution to the pleasures of the theory party).

Technological Observations?

As law school teachers, I know we will all be learning more about online delivery as we go, and that our time and energy for learning about new platforms is limited.   Making this video took less time than I anticipated, and was much easier to do than I feared.  It was done by using the record function on Zoom, by taking 3 photos with my phone, and then by spending a surprisingly short amount of time, less than an hour,using iMovie (with the guidance of DIY videos from the web).  Low tech, but doable!

I would love to hear ideas from others about ways that small videos might be used in different classroom contexts.

At The Bridge: James Teit and an Anthropology of Belonging

20200528_171147_hdrLooking for a good read this summer, during COVID times?  One of my favourite books of the year is Wendy Wickwire’s book,  At the Bridge: James Teit and an Anthropology of Belonging (UBC Press, 2019).

Now, you may be thinking “I don’t know who James Teit is”, or “Anthropology isn’t really my thing.”   I would encourage you to push past those responses, and say that if you give this book a try, you will come away being so happy to have built a relationship with James Teit, and I suspect you may also come away feeling connected in a more intimate way to the places you live (where ever those places are) and feeling more  hopeful about the ways we all may choose, in these difficult times, to become anthropologists of belonging.  In concrete terms, here is what it says on the back cover of the book:

Every once in a while, an important historical figure makes an appearance, makes a difference, and then disappears from the public record.  James Teit (1864-1922) was such a figure.  A prolific ethnographer and tireless Indian rights activist, Teit spent four decades helping British Columbia’s Indigenous people in their challenge of he settler-colonial assault on their lives and territories.  At the Bridge chronicles Teits’s fascinating story:  From this base at Spences Bridge, BC, Teit practised a participant-based anthropology that covered much of BC and northern Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. Whereas his contemporaries, including famed anthropologist Franz Boas, studied Indigenous peoples as the last survivors of “dying cultures” in need of preservation in metropolitan museums, Teit worked with them as members of living cultures actively asserting jurisdiction over their lives and lands.  At the Bridge lifts this story from obscurity.

It bugs me knowing Boas published this photo of Teit and Ankto photo without identifying them.

I was excited when this book came out, in part because I had already encountered Teit.  Or at least, I knew his name.  For several years, I had been part of a partnership between ILRU (the Indigenous Law Research Unit at UVic) and the SNTC (The Shuswap Nation Tribal Council) working on a number of the Secwépemc Law projects. In these projects, we were asked to work with a number of Secwépemc storied legal resources, and to draw on a number of those gathered by James Teit at the turn of the last century (You can see a copy of the Lands and Resources Law Research Project here).  All this to say, I knew that his name was on the monograph from which we drew these resources.  But I knew next to nothing about Teit himself.

And now, I love him.   Seriously.  And I love thinking about his Nlaka’pamux wife Antko, and the place of women in this important story.  And I love the book.   You know I love a book if I lay traces of my pens and highlighters so thickly across the paper.  20200528_171439_hdrMy copy of the book pretty much looks like this…..  I couldn’t help myself!  (sorry to you librarian folk out there who try to maintain book purity). But the text simply drew me into engagement, and there were just so many things i wanted to be able to return to. While my kids (nearly adult man-cubs?) have not yet ‘read’ the book (physically run their eyes over the pages), they both have a good sense of what is there:  while I was reading, I was constantly stopping to interrupt them in their other endeavours, so I could read them different sections from the book.

A treat to see pages from his field notes, always identifying specific storytellers, weavers, hunters…

It is just chock-a-block full histories that need knowing.   And it is written in such an accessible style, whether one is a theorist, a historian, a  teenager, a community member, a health care worker, an environmentalist, a linguist, a knitter, a basket maker.  Beautifully thoughtful and inviting.

I also think it should be mandatory reading for anyone teaching in a law school (OK.  Not that I would “mandate” anything, but I think people would WANT to have access to this one).

The day I finished my first read through of this book, I sent the following note out to my law school colleagues, detailing all the reasons I think this book should be on all our shelves, and should be drawn into our teaching, our research, and our practices of engaging in the socio-political world around us.  I still stand by that analysis.

Hi all:
I have been reading my way through Wendy Wickwire’s new book At the Bridge: An Anthropology of Belonging, and wanted to put the word out that I think this book might be the “must read” book of the year.  I have been thinking about how it is a game changer in a number of areas:
 1. People teaching in BC law schools – I feel like the historical pieces of BC finally started settling into place with this book
2.  People teaching constitutional law – wow to the ability of this book to get at both confederation questions and federalism ones
3.  People thinking about reconciliation stuff — the story of James Teit is so absolutely inspiring in terms of seeing indigenous/settler collaborations and working relationships
4.  People working on any of the transsystemmic questions — this book gets at the legal orders in the BC interior
5.  People thinking about the history of Victoria and Vancouver Island — I just think this book should be taught in all the high schools here too.
6.  People looking for models and pathways for how we begin to have more complex engagements of law at the current juncture.
7.  People cautious about the place of anthropology in our legal work — this book makes visible multiple ways of doing anthropology, and provides tools for distinguishing the kinds of approaches that are more and less helpful/valuable (indeed, left me feeling rather inspired about the possibilities of acting otherwise)
Anyways…. I think it would be a great choice for a faculty “book club” read.   This will be an amazing resource for us here in the law school, and I am really keen on having others to talk to about the book (and ways to think about drawing this book into our resources in both first year and upper year courses)
Wendy Wickwire’s At the Bridge is one of those books that has shifted my sense of history, and my sense of what is possible when it comes to walking the path of respectful relations, and taking seriously the hopeful potential in decolonizing actions.  What James Teit did (as a settler to Canada) is possible for all of us to do.  He offers us a pathway.  It is ours to walk.

Returning to “Before Tomorrow” in COVID Times

BeforetomorrowfilmIn this month of global attention to the COVID pandemic, I find myself playing and replaying scenes from the 2008 Isuma Igloolik film, Before Tomorrow.

This film has been haunting the corners of my mind for years now.

Now it is taking on a larger presence, as the questions it poses have moved from being academic and historical to being current and pressing.

If you haven’t seen it, do!  The trailer  captures the stunning cinematographic feel of this film.  It is so beautiful.

I should, of course, begin with the cautionary note that is necessary in these times.   The film (though fictional) is set in the Arctic during the small-pox epidemics of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Here is the spoiler alert:  smallpox arrives at the community, killing everyone but the grandmother and grandson.

But the smallpox is not quite the point of the film.  It is rather the context for the bigger questions that it poses.  This is suggested by the music of the opening credits: we begin with the McGarrigle Sisters’ (1997) song “Why Must We Die?”.

Though the film opens with this question, it really asks us to consider a different question, “How shall we live?” And I put the emphasis here on the word how, and not on the word shall.  There is no avoiding the pandemic.  And indeed, that death arrives is not the centre of the film.  The centre of the film is about the relationships of the people to each other and to the land. It is about ways of living.

Image credit: Isuma TV

In particular, we are invited to think about these relationships of life and living by suturing ourselves to the relationship between the grandmother and grandson.  The characters are played by real life grandmother and grandson, Madeline Ivalu and Paul-Dylan Ivalu.

This alone would make the film a treasure.  How many films can you draw to mind that centre an older woman!?  And particularly, a grandmother and grandson?!  This gives us an unusual space of intimacy.  The film centres the two of them, and the life that they continue to live in the face of the catastrophe that has arrived.

Though the questions it raises are hard to face head on, the film is exquisite.  In these times, I find myself reflecting on my own forgetfulness about the multiple epidemics that have swept across this nation, doing particularly brutal damage to Indigenous and Inuit communities.  In 2020, as the globe seems to come together around an epidemic that might lead us to a death-rate of between 1-4%, I think again about what questions have confronted communities impacted by death rates between 30 and 90% (depending on the community).  As historian Cole Harris notes in his article “Voices of Disaster”, this is a holocaust that Canadians still speak very little about.   Indeed, the numbers of people lost are not numbers that I can make sense of.  The mind slips away from the magnitude.

Image credit: Isuma TV

Before Tomorrow, provides a kind of an anchor, one that makes visible the horror of the epidemics, but also grounds another set of questions that seem so pressing in these times.   How will we, as we confront what lies ahead, bind ourselves to continuing relationships with the patterns of life in all their beauty?  What relations might we build and sustain?

If you are interested in reading more about the film, I discuss it in a chapter about intercultural encounters, and learning about Inuit law through film. [Click here for a link to the text]. The full cite is:

Johnson, Rebecca. “Intercultural Cinema and the (Re)Envisioning of Law:   Exploring Life, Death and Law in Atanarjuat and Before Tomorrow.” In Envisioning Legality: Law, Culture and Representation, edited by Timothy D. Peters and Karen Crawley, 228-48: Routledge, 2018.



“Reimagining Justice: Art, Law and Social Change” – The Gallery Walk

VPRE_05616_02_IF2019_542x288_web_bannerOUTIdeaFest is the University of Victoria’s annual research festival, showcasing the ideas of faculty, students and staff from across the University. This year, there were a number of events involving the Law School community.   One was “Reimagining Justice: Art, Law and Social Change”.

This event involved a series of talks during the week about Law and Theatre, Law and Dance, Law and the Arts, and the Arts as Pedagogy.  As part of this event, for the duration of the week, the UVic law moot court room was transformed into an interactive art installation showcasing the relationship between art, law and social justice.  The room was filled with creative projects that had been handed in  as part of the course work in classes such as Criminal Law, Business Associations, Family Law, Constitutional Law, and Sexual Orientation and the Law.  The project curated by Lorinda Fraser (MSc in Museum Studies). Click here for a link to the Exhibition Catalogue, which lists the students whose work was featured.

DSC_0803.JPGOn the final day of the event, we held a “Gallery Walk” where three of the professors who had been involved (Professors Gillian Calder, Rebecca Johnson and Sara Ramshaw) spoke in more detail about the specific projects that were in the room, to open space for conversations about things that might be learned through producing, evaluating, and interacting with arts-based methods in the context of a law school. What follows below is a transcript of that gallery walk, along with some images to capture the sense of the exhibition.


Rebecca Johnson (RJ): We would like to begin by acknowledging with respect the Lekwungen-speaking peoples on whose traditional territory the University stands and the Songhees, Esquimalt and WSÁNEĆ peoples whose historical relationships with the land continue to this day. One of the gifts of making such acknowledgements is that they remind us to take the opportunity to learn how we, as uninvited guests in these beautiful territories, can learn to live in ways that are lawful for the Coast Salish world. We are happy to have you here for our Gallery Walk for IdeaFest. This is Professor Gillian Calder, I am Rebecca Johnson, and this is Professor Sara Ramshaw. We have been working with Lorinda Fraser, one of our own, who has recently completed her Masters in Museum Studies. She worked with us to curate a sampling of projects that have been handed in for classes in our law school over a number of years.

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Restructuring the Dispute Resolution Room

Gillian Calder (GC): Part of what we have been thinking and talking about is how evaluation and iterative learning are done at law school. How do we bring deep learning to our students in the kinds of assignments that they have the opportunity to do?  How much of who students are is formed by what they go on to do?  How much of law involves creativity, imagination and empathy?  How do we train those skills?  What teachers have always done is to find opportunities with students, when they are doing assignments or in their exams in their courses, to answer questions in ways that the questions demand.

A papier-mâché latern to illuminate law?

Most commonly in law, that is done through written answers, essays, and exams. But sometimes the question can be best answered by drawing on some other form. What you have in the room is a sampling of some of those. What we are going to do is walk around a bit and talk about some of these projects. We will not be able to give you the exact question each student was asked for each project, but what you should know is that there are projects in this room from Criminal Law, Business Associations, Family Law, Sexual Orientation and the Law, Directed Reading Classes and others. The questions that the students were answering through these projects were often the same questions answered by other students through more conventional forms; and so some students answered through papers, and some through projects. Some of these projects were evaluated on a pass/fail basis, and others based on letter grade.  Some of these projects were worth 10% of the final grade, others were worth 30%, and yet others represent the entirety of a student’s work in the course. That is why these projects are very different in scope and in size. We are going to walk around and talk with you about various projects. We invite you to ask questions, and to interrogate us about our experiences as teachers.  To ask us how we hold a paper and a project side by side. To ask us more about the learning we have needed to do in order to feel able evaluate these different kinds of engagements.

The view from the judges bench

RJ: These projects will also let us discuss what we have learned in the process of engaging with work that raises expectations different from those we had for more conventional work. And as with all gallery tours, we will cluster in front of something and there will be chairs for people who want to sit, and for people who can get down on the floor and somehow get back up, then feel free to sit there as we move around. So let us start.

Foraging for tea. Does law have a fragrance?

GC:  Some of the projects are rooted in the textual. On the judges’ bench at the front, for example, there is some non-conventional written work that has been handed in. Poetry books. Scrapbooks.  Photo albums.  A poem that has been published in a law journal (the poem was handed in as an exam in Federalism in Law in December and was just published). There are some examples like that around. Some of the pieces are purely visual.  You will see art on the walls around you.   There are videos playing on the screen on the wall.  There is also an mp3 player in the witness box, so you can sit there with headphones on and listen to songs that students have written and performed.

RJ:  Perhaps we can start with games as a genre since we are already gathered at this table.

Goal? To adopt a child before window of possibility closes.

GC: This table displays 4 different game categories. I will talk briefly about the game on the far end. This was a game handed in for family law, for 40% of the mark. The question the students were asked to respond to was “How does law regulate your understanding of the family?” with the option given to answer the question in whatever format was best.  This student wanted to write about obstacles that exist to gay men adopting in Canada notwithstanding that there are no formal barriers, in law, to same-sex partners, or single gay folk adopting. So he created that game that demonstrates that even though law is inclusive, there remain many barriers.  So you play the game and the goal is for you and your partner to get to the end where you adopt a baby. But you have to cross identity barriers and financial barriers and other kinds of barriers to get there.  When you play the game you feel it in your body. You understand obstacles by playing the game that you would not understand in the same sense by just reading about them. It is fun to engage with the game but you never lose sight of the fact that this is a real struggle; the project makes the argument that homophobia exists in many of our practices around how we create families in Canada, even with the shifts in Family Law. It was a stunning project and often when I  am encouraging students to think about doing projects, I bring out this game for them to play to give them a sense of what some possibilities might be for them. It is one of the best ways that an essay question has ever been answered in Family Law.

An Alternative “Board Game Cafe?”

RJ: In terms of game tables you can see there are different kinds of games and different forms of engagement. Part of the work with games and students is beginning to think of how creating the rules of the game and learning how to change the rules as you go along can provide a space for learning questions about not only how you engage with a concept but how you think about teaching people you work with, people in families — how to see structural and systemic patterns. And also how to think about the difference between collaborative games, and competitive games and history games. The genre of gaming can help work through different kinds of challenges. And different forms of games. Sometimes students work with the structures that they already know. Taking something like The Settlers of Catan, for those of you who have played that game, and then modifying the game to think about the place of economy and settlement. So there are games that draw on that form. There are games that are card games that similarly draw on traditions of card games.  The projects help us think differently about the place of adaptation and creativity and modifying that which has come before. Like what it means to draw up the resources of things that you have and then modify them, adapt them and move them forward.  The card game on the table, for example, draws on the structure of a game called Zombie Fight or Flight (developed by professor Sharon Sutherland) and then the project explored the kinds of modifications that would make it work in the context of economic re-imaginaries. The work is in working on the relationship between an established game and a new form.

Marking a game by making one’s kids play?

RJ:  I note here that if you look at the video monitor in the room, you will see a rotation of photos capturing additional projects that are not in the room.  Included there is a photo of me playing a game with a friend and our young boys. That photo leads me to echo some of what Gillian said about difference between looking at a game and playing a game. One of the challenges for marking a game as a project is that games are often most pleasurable when one knows its rules and is able to play creatively within the structure of the game. So sometimes from a marking perspective, it is interesting that it is often quicker to mark a paper than a project, particularly if the project is a game. But a game teaches you other things. One game will go by on the monitor at some point, a simple game with basic tools.  But its magic was in the playing.  In the photo, you see me and friend Stacy, harnessing our young boys to the work of ‘evaluation’: the four of us tried to play this game that involved a continually re-working of the rules themselves (with each round, the group had to first decide what rules of governance or decision-making would apply). We adults watched our young teens invent new rules, like, if you didn’t say, “All hail the king!” at the beginning of your turn, you lost points. Realizing the randomness that came through the playing was part of the pleasure of the game.

Modified Gameboards

You can see other game-engagements on the table, including this one, a modification of a Monopoly Board with a written paper on the bottom of the board, talking about the history of Monopoly or Anti-Monopoly. So you could see again people taking up games and actively shoving them or pushing them to be not exactly something you would play, but rather something you would use to think through a problem. So, games and gaming is a category of things that students have thought through and played with and learned with.  We have certainly learned much from them in those engagements.

Objects of Law…

GC: At the next table, we have a series of objects. I am going to talk about this piece which was also a 40% question in a family law project. The question again is how does law regulate our understanding of the family. This project was done by a student, a trans-man, who is the birth mother of his 2 children having given birth to his children before transitioning.  And for his project, he produced this object: a pregnant body.

The gendered body

There are many stories that circulate around and with this object.  One is that, in his first year of law school, his parents sued him for custody of his children because of this gender identity.  He did this project as an attempt to capture and to document what it is to be at the same time a birth mother and a trans man.  What you see in this project also depends on your position.  Some of you are positioned as if a midwife or doctor, looking up the stirrups. This is the position through which people will first see this object when they come enter this room.

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A Re-working of “Are You My Mother?”

The project also includes a book, which is part of the argument.  Here, he begins with P.D. Eastman’s classic book, Are You My Mother?, but he has changed the book to play with the notion of the gender binary.  In this way, he raises questions about what it is to be someone’s mother. And what was amazing is that after he did the project, there was a time at the law school where there was some concern raised in the student body about our ability to change our bathrooms to be gender inclusive. 

How are different bodies supported in space?

And our student took the opportunity to remind those of us with cisgender privilege about what it means, every day, to carry that privilege.  He talked about his experience, as a man, in the changing room at his local pool, with his children calling him mom.  The object and its stories flowed out in ways that were transformative; modelling how creativity in law enables unique engagement on some of law’s most pressing issues.

An archive of gendered items

GC: Next is a Museum Box project.  This one was a final project in Sexual Orientation and the Law, which students affectionately call Sex-O. It comes with a guide to the museum box of items and what appears to be a tape recorded story of this student coming back to the school in 2057 to discover the challenges of gender and trans-identity being a museum item.  That is, the box is full of objects once central to gender binaries, objects that no longer function as anything but artifacts of a time past.  In this way, the museum box has captured the idea that we might be able to live in a different world. We have here the idea of transformation captured in different forms. Both the trans-man and the Museum Box projects push the boundaries of different kinds of questions. Both projects draw from personal experience of the students and I can say that I have felt very shaped by both projects.

The Matryousha Doll — Layers of the Economy

RJ: The next two objects on this table were handed in for a Business Associations Class. Both projects were an engagement with JK Gibson-Graham’s book, Take Back the Economy. The book was assigned reading for the course, and students were asked to use the book as a launching point to explore the contours of the economic imaginary — wondering how one might creatively re-imagine business and its challenges. The book explores markets, property, finance internationalization, subjectivity and economic rationality.  One person engaged with the book by making a Matryoshka. You can see the person has taken an 8-piece matryoshka doll, and has repurposed it.  It has been painted over, and each nested doll has been papered with texts or images to represent a different layer of our economic universe.  The first layers takes us to selected provisions of the Business Corporations Act, and then picks down through layers, taking up work, finance, international economic flows, commodities, networks, human relations,  and then there is a little bit of copulation and reproduction going on down here at the bottom of the matryoshka, and finally moving down to the centre, the final black box, which contains a secret scroll which presumably holds a clue to the ultimate answer. Of course, it is a single question mark. One of the things that was interesting about this project is this student was very concerned or worried about the requirement for words at all times. His argument was, we should be able to stand without words and so he handed in this project with no textual support. Usually in my classes, for this kind of work, the argument to the student from me is, it is not about the product you produce, it is about the process. So you can have a product that completely fails to do what the student imagined it would do, that comes in conjunction with textual support or a paper that talks about what they learned in the process of attempting something that didn’t work. So the goal is really on having the process problems being central to the work, not so much the object itself.  But this object came with no additional text.  This student actively made the decision to deny me access to any text beyond the object.  [insert big smile here].  In short, his argument was simply, “Here it is.  You figure out what to make of it.”  It was interesting, starting to have this idea of, what is it to mark, evaluate, or simply engage with a project where no words are offered to you?  So from this project, I learned so much.  It required me to think about what assumptions I was bringing to the interpretation of each of these layers. This opened me up to the idea of lawyering is precisely this, that we don’t often have the guide that tells us how we are to interact with the various layers we can pull apart, and that the project pulls itself up, pun intended to these many levels.

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labour and creativity in work

RJ:  The next object is a pair of beaded feathers.  It also came with textual support: a paper where the  student talked about learning how to bead a feather and what additional things she was learning in the doing. She beaded two feathers, and used the occasion to explore both Indigenous law and teachings, and challenges around the commodification of (women’s) labour in a global economy. So she chose to work on the first feather only after she had already completed a 12-hour day of work. And then, she monitored the amount of work, the time, the felt experience of doing the work.  For the second feather, she did the beading on a day where she had cleared everything else off her plate.  She worked at her own pace with her own imaginative tools to produce the feather. Then she reflected on the actual cost of materials and the question of value. And of what consumers are prepared to pay for these pieces. The two feathers are objects of beauty.  I note that the paper also engaged with the question of feathers, and which ones she could (choose to) use or not use.  This opened up space for an engagement with Indigenous law and pedagogy.  All of that was layered in the feather beading project. She explained what she learn from working with the importance of the feather as a sign of law itself. So in some of these projects, when you look at them, there are pieces of text that accompany them, that not only  explain the work, but take up the processes through which a person learns through engagement with a project.

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A Mask, and memories of teachings

GC: We could take the whole time just talking about this next table of objects.  You can see as you look that there is a question about whether the piece you create makes the argument in and of itself. Not all of them have to be accompanied by something that explains it. And that is part of the assignment; part of how we are training students to be legal advocates. If it doesn’t stand alone, then maybe you should have chosen a different medium in order to make your argument. It is not just about doing art. It is about choosing the right medium for your message. This mask, for example, was accompanied with a text of teachings that the student who is Metis had given for her niece.  One part of the project was this mask conveying the effects of family law on a Metis person. The other part of the project was a teaching that was tape recorded, and then given given to the student’s niece. So I don’t have that piece of the project. So some of these objects are partial works, partial works of incredible work.

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The hidden costs of fast fashion

RJ: The next object is a modified dress.  This dress is an example of something that might make its argument through performance. The dress came in a lovely bag with tissue around it, leaving me to perform the pleasures of unwrapping a beautiful new dress. It included the tag at the underarm of the dress, suggesting it had been marked down to only $3.00.   There was also a booklet (with a barcode on the front) asking how much discount fashion was worth. The reverse side of the booklet tells you the actual cost of the dress: 12 hours of labour and $65 worth of materials.  It also invites you to turn the dress inside out to see the hidden costs of the fast fashion industry.  There, you encounter a mass of tags, each of which speaks to the hidden costs, including the production of super weeds, the cost of suicide, poorly made clothing, increasing anxiety and depression, temporary labour, it goes on and on with all of the hidden costs. On the inside of the booklet are reproductions of the tags, along with footnotes to where the person found citations about these ideas. You should absolutely go closer and take a look underneath. Seriously.  Take the dress and turn the skirt up and you will see what are the hidden costs of fast fashion.  So here you see the argument being explained and performed in a fashion that nicely matches the work, though certainly everything here is something people already know. But there is the act of  pulling a dress up out of a bag and turning it inside out to see its hidden costs that punches the argument, that makes it hard to unsee once a person has seen it.

An argument in the form of adornment

Our curator also paired the dress with a second project: the necklace you see on the mannequin.   She thought it worth putting the two projects into conversation.  It is a necklace called The Golden Cage.  It is a piece of jewelry, with the flowers of the community garden trying to emerge  but being constrained by the shell of the structure that impedes movement. The student was grappling with the challenge of whether we make change with individual action or whether individual actions are inadequate to help us untangle the structures that hold us in the same place. So again, performing that kind of tension of the argument in the piece of jewellery itself is a project.

Painting the argument

GC: One other category that we have is visual arts.   You can see three projects here on the board: one in family law, one in constitutional law and one in business associations.  All three paintings are asking different questions. Again, there are stories behind each one, and each merits a long conversation.  Let me chose the middle painting.  This was was a 10% assignment in Constitutional Law where the students were asked to go to a community event (it could be a talk at the law school or something at home) and then write about how they saw the Canadian Constitution reflected in that event. How could they draw a connection between the event in their community and Canadian Constitutional Law?

A painting as a reminder of ceremony

This student did a painting about a disconnect in her life as an Iranian person living in Canada, participating in a traditional ceremony.  The painting was accompanied by food, and some writing.  The three items together were the means through which to not only engage with the constitutional questions that exist for immigrants to Canada, but to document and overcome some of the similar challenges of being at law school.

Lawyers on Stage, and the Coffee-Pod Tower

GC: Let me add that, in my courses, when students turn to the visual, or to popular culture for a project, I require them to engage with literature on the image and law, or popular culture and law, in order to be able to justify why they are using any particular form to make the argument. And I will say briefly, I am not an artist. I cannot paint myself out of a bag.  But it is possible to develop the ability to evaluate the work of others at translating an argument into another form.   It is a challenge to develop the courage and ability to evaluate a different kind of work, to measure it  against something that I can more easily mark (like a thesis or a 40 page paper with footnotes). So, that has been a learning journey about how to offer critical feedback.  In the process of doing this project pedagogy event this week, I have gone back to some of the comments I offered the students when I originally handed back their work. It is interesting for me to have some distance to see my ability to offer them critical feedback. Not every project in this room got a great mark out of 100 because not all of them achieved their goals. But at the same time I know that the projects included a different form of learning, and for many of these students, deep learning.

Family photos

Sara Ramshaw (SR): This is also a project by an Canadian-Iranian student, this time for Family Law. We take for granted the idea of adoption as being a joyous occasion. Judges often say that adoption ceremonies are the most/only pleasurable thing about Family Law. In Iranian culture, though, there is a stigma against adoption, as it marks the inability to give birth to one’s own children. The student was trying to portray this. If I remember correctly,  her sister and brother-in-law were visiting her and they had a child who had been adopted. She had them act out the various struggles, anguish and joy that comes with International adoption to create a photo essay, which included a brochure evidencing her research and bibliography.

The project as it arrived, wrapped in paper

RJ: On the visuals, let me just a point over to this corner for a moment, where you see a painting covered with brown paper. This project arrived totally wrapped in brown paper.  It also arrived with a pair of scissors in an envelop, and the dare (written on the brown paper) to see if I was brave enough to “break down the blinders”. I was left with the question about how to open the project.  What was I to do with the scissors?

Blinders partially removed

This brown paper seemed a piece of the work, itself. But the question was, do I have the ability to break down the blinders and the courage and the ingenuity to emerge and reveal what is behind it?   So I did start with the question, what would I cut out? How would I do the cut?  I cut out four different sections of the wheel/pie, before I finally I couldn’t stand the suspense (or the cutting!) and I took one side of the paper off so I could see this beautiful haunting work that is behind it.

The image behind the paper

I was left with many questions.  At what point do I make the whole thing visible? Do I cover it back up for other viewers to take off their blinders? What is the relationship between me and those who come after. So when we put this up in the gallery, I placed the brown paper with the outer cover folded down so that the painting can be revealed.  Almost everyday the week, I walk into the space and see that someone has been worried that it has fallen down and then has placed it back up.  I do love seeing which way people think the paper should lie (or even if they try to look beneath.  It raises the question.  What  is the relationship that is going on between art/projects and ourselves?  When do we think it is done? How does art invite us to interact with it? Is looking behind the brown paper cheating? I worried about that. Is that kind of cheating to be celebrated as a pleasurable act? And offered to others?

Listening to the music of law…

SR: In the witness box we are invited to listen to student compositions and songs relating to a particular legal issue. I have two Family Law examples here. One is entitled “The Music of Change: The Shifting Face of Marriage”. It is a piano composition, and the student explains what the movements meant to him. Even though I work with improvising musicians, I would not have known exactly what was going on and so I needed this explanation as to the choice of notes and how it related to this particular project. It was written in 3 movements. The liner notes provide the context and research.  Another project for Family Law was called “ReDesign”, again explaining the changing face of marriage. This particular student wrote the lyrics and music to a song played on the guitar and wanted to remain anonymous because they weren’t happy with their singing voice. So I have taken out the attribution of this, but I think the lyrics speak for themselves. Rebecca, do you want to speak to the Business Associations music projects?

collaborative exploration of socially responsible investing

RJ: Sure.  One thing to note is that projects often involve collaboration.  For one of the musical projects in this exhibition, four students worked together to create an album of songs with lyrics that would show what it would look like if you imagined a sole proprietor, what it would look like if you imagined working in a partnership, or in a coop or in a corporation. So they are trying to musically map out four versions of the song that met what they would be thinking about in terms of the structure.  They also worked together through different instruments to produce the four songs.  In their small reflection that accompanied the music, they spoke about what it meant to have the space where they worked as people who had prior musical backgrounds together to try to produce something as a group. So the work of music? You can listen to it. Occupy the witness box. Think about what it means to witness through music, to listen to these tapes. But then to think again about what it means to have something we write down and enscribe and it exists in performance and it exists in collaboration. So there is so much learning for the students and for us as we are thinking about what it means to think about law through music, not only through the lens of intellectual property, but also through the lens of performance and law.

Law built up through small stitches?

GC: Our curator, Lorinda Fraser, made some conscious choices about how to transform this Dispute Resolution Room, so that what happens here makes us think differently about how we engage with law. This room looks very much like a courtroom. So, to have the person in the witness box have the head phones on and be listening — that is an interesting transformation about what we usually think about when we have people in the witness box. As well, I have had music turned into me in classes and when people explain the music or explain the movements, one thing I have appreciated is their efforts to try to do it within the genre of what they are doing. For example, a student handed in album liner notes, including the textual, but in a way that fit wit the medium.

Stitiching old & new laws into re-engagment?

I would also say that one of the challenges of doing this work has been expectations of people or judgements in some ways that giving people the chance to do a project is a really easy “A”.   You know, “hand in a cake to Professor Calder and you will get an A.” There are people that believe projects are simple, or that they do not involve research work.  Certainly, it is easy to tell in a paper if the person hasn’t done the depth of research that they needed to do to make the argument or consider the argument. But this is also true for projects.   It is a challenge to think about how to measure some of these things across different formats.  Some of these projects are extraordinarily elaborate.  But with a paper, we might limit a student to, for instance, no more than 10 pages; we say, “you are going to lose five marks for every page over the limit”.  What kinds of limits, then, do we imagine for projects, to limit what they require of both students, and teachers?  There are programmatic questions one might ask about how are we seeing the connections between different ways of answering questions, and enabling people to do this kind of work.

Different resource books for judges?

RJ: The difference between worrying about the evaluation component and worrying about the deep learning component is a concern. They might not always match up. People have talked about this in academia for many years. Where to put our energy?

Let us talk about the judges’ bench since we are so close to it. At the front where the judges would ordinarily be sitting we have a variety of books to think about what resources, what texts judges might draw on as they think about justice and judgement.IMG_20181217_132139 At one corner we have placed 4 different book projects.  One is a brightly coloured paper bag book: the  student stapled together paper bags and then produced a book engaging with the economy. Each of the paper bags has in it a pull-out, handout, and each of these responds to the questions that were raised in the assigned book for the course.  Each page provides another way to tell the story of the economy and how it might look different.  There is yet another book at the front you may wish to explore: a small coil bound book of poetry. It contains preambular and definitions sections, as well as poems for different forms of business.  As you might imagine, the poems for partnership come out in the form of couplets. And the poem for the sole proprietor folds out to extend beyond the range of the pages, marking how that form is unbounded by any formal choices. They can go on as long as they want. There are poems for Corporations, and for Cooperatives, along with poetic discussion of such things as font choices.

words and images to re-frame the economies of farming

Some times, students hand in books with the feel of a coffee-table book, or a photo essay.  Here is one by a student who engaged with their own family farm to think about what they learned through a series of photo commentary. You will also see a Trans-Zine (submitted in Criminal Law), done by the same student who did the trans-man project we began with.   The books capture multiple forms – children’s books, colouring books, found object books. You will see many forms in which the book can be thought of as a resource for other people: books as resources.

writing across the genres

SR:  Another project from Family Law is a play script by one of the students who also acted in this year’s Lawyers on Stage Theatre production of Treasure Island. Basically, the student looked at the changing ideas of family and gender diversity at three points in time: 1970, 2015 and 2050. She was working towards the time in the future where diversity in family forms and gender identity would be taken for granted. We also have a children’s book. The narrative is quite simple, but the student did a lot of research around law and children’s literature, especially Des Manderson’s work, about how literature teaches children law and norms from an early age. In this book, she not only performs how law is taught to children, but theorizes it in her performance. And another is a short story called “The Prenuptial Agreement”. The genre taught me so much more about what the issues are in relation to the prenuptial agreement that the student was trying to work through.  One of the works that is not here is an epic poem written about a case of which many of you may know, a blood transfusion case of a Jehovah’s Witness child. I have read this case and ones like it many times. This particular student wrote about it from the perspective of the child and put it into poetic verse. By the end I was bawling my eyes out. The poem brought so much more insight to this case than I could ever imagine, because it made me feel it in my body, as did “The Prenuptial Agreement” — I could physically feel the dilemmas. Thus, I am learning as much from the projects as the students are.

Two-Spirit engagements with law

GC: There is a full sized figure that was handed in for Sexual Orientation class. It is the creation of an Indigenous student who has a partner who is is a trans-man. The figure represents the various ways she is living the life of a two-spirited person. Both the front and the back are meant to be seen and draws on different notions of what it means to be present in such a body. I have this figure in my office. I take it with me to presentations where I am talking to others of my colleagues about the transformative role projects can play in the teaching and learning of law. Teachers from the art school were just enamoured by this work.  The figure is presented as looking out the window of this room so that everyone who is passing by and looks through that window can see her.

GC:  Thank you for your questions. We love your intimate engagement. Thanks to those who have done work in this room this week: to Sara whose energy has been extra-ordinary; to Lorinda for her curatorial eye; to all of the students whose bravery has taken up these genres, paper writing and projects.

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Dancing in Collaboration with witnesses

SR: I would like to add one thing about bravery.  I want to speak about law student Kristen Lewis’s dance performance, which has been caught on the screen behind you. Talk about brave. Kristen danced her Family Law assignment in front of her family law class.  Danced.  In front of her fellow students who didn’t quite know how to take a performance like this. As the backdrop to her dance, she had Bikers Against Child Abuse come to the class and stand at the front of the class with their faces against the blackboard for 20 minutes. And she also produced explanations about her performance on paper. Kristen is here today. Would you like to say something about your experience, Kristen?

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Bikers Against Child Abuse deepen the dance

Kristen Lewis (the Dancer): I will say that just the opportunity to do something other than just write a paper helps me to understand how Family Law impacts children. And it helped me to understand how Family Law impacts my own body. I believe this will make me, as a Family Law lawyer, able to see some new possibilities for others. When I read child protection cases, I noticed the gestures that would come up in my body as I read them. In my first year of law school, when I started to get sad as I read cases, I would just compartmentalize the work. When it came to family law, I would just get very sad. I would take 5 minutes to cry and then go back to the case and read again. So instead of pathologizing my emotional reactions to the cases I decided that I would use body gestures to amplify the reactions I have to the material in the cases. And that helped me get stronger. It is not like I want to be able to handle some of the things that the body is not built to handle: the horror of these cases. To be able to handle those things would become problematic. But dancing gave me the strength so that instead of being numb or just crying on the floor, I could practise having this fluid movement with my body that would let me see a lot more into family law cases. I don’t think that end product would have been possible without the dance. Nor even going down to Starbucks late at night to meet Bikers against Child Abuse and that actual interaction with the people there is really what law is made out of. So I loved the opportunity for this project and feel grateful to Sara Ramshaw and also grateful for all the people in the law school who make this theorizing this kind of thing possible. We aren’t shunned. So to have a theoretical basis and an understanding of this work, it makes me glad that I choose UVic for a law school.

‘Tabling’ some questions

RJ:  In closing, let us say again, that we have  been nourished by the work we have seen today and we too, are so grateful for the context of a law school that makes it possible for us to do this without us being seen as radical or on the edge, but just as part of the work of thinking about pedagogy.  Thank you for joining us.

Testify! – Reflections on “Making Mistakes”

The Fabulous Testify T-Shirt
The Fabulous Testify T-Shirt

This past week, as part of the UVic IdeaFest event, Sarah Morales and I had the opportunity to reflect on the experience we had working on the Testify: Indigenous Law + The Arts Project.

There is much to be said about the Testify Project.  I just want to reflect for a moment on one of the lessons the collaboration offered about both the reality and the power of mistakes along the way.

I was conscious during the project of my status as both a learner, and a settler.  It was not simply that I was trying to work across the boundaries of genre, though there was that.  It is a challenge as someone who works primarily in the medium of words (and words as used within the legal profession), to stretch out and learn from another more artistically rooted media, the visual, performative, or auditory.  In working with Shain Jackson, I found myself feeling the need to learn more about the visual grammar of Coast Salish art.  I knew that I was likely to find myself making mistakes as I attempted to collaborate in a place that involved a different fluency in media.

There was also the fear that comes from being a settler engaging with Indigenous colleagues in this work, knowing that I was also being given the opportunity to settle into yet another kind of learning, and that I would need to be open to places where my own ways of being might see me acting like the proverbial bull in the china shop.  I knew that there would be mistakes along the way, and places where I would likely need some correction.  I settled in to trying to be open to the ways and places that might happen.

But there were yet other mistakes that I bumped into along the way, mistakes that had a much more familiar feel to one who works largely in the world of words.

Let me preface the mistake by making a comment on money.  As anyone who runs a household knows, resources are necessary for life.  This is equally true for the business of creating a collaborative law and art project.  A project like Testify simply could not happen without being resourced, and so I raise my hands both to the organizers who did the work of applying for funding, and to the organizations that sent funds in the direction of this project.

As is always the case, there was still a need to generate more funds.  One avenue was to sell some ‘swag’ at the event.  Something like the feminist bake-sale!  And so, the plan was to order some merchandise to sell at the launch in order to both commemorate the project, and to ensure there was money to cover the full costs of the collaboration.

For the first launch event  in the fall of 2016, we were running right down to the wire in terms of time, with people working with the Loungeworks Popup Gallery to get exhibits into place and to make last minute changes.  I headed off to the print shop to pick up the boxes of T-Shirts that had been ordered.

A most unfortunate typo

I arrived back at the gallery and we opened the box to find ourselves, to our horror, confronting the moment that every writer dreads: the possibility of the humiliating spelling error.  There it was, writ large in the small print:  INDIGNEOUS LAWS.


Deep breath.

Clearly, a correction was called for.  Whether the typo was by the printer or on our side it was clear that we needed to have another run of t-shirts.

The print shop was contacted to see how fast they could give us another run of t-shirts with the correct logo on them.  No problem.   They could have the corrected t-shirts ready for the opening.

Second call?  How to address the economic pit represented by the error.   The Collective had now incurred double the costs (having purchased twice as many t-shirts as planned).  It also had the problem (thinking in the language of business or accounting) of an inventory that had lost its value.   Having a set of misspelled T-shirts felt a bit like having a box full of popsicles but no freezer to put them in.

A T-shirt with a waiver, awaiting a willing buyer!

And now for the lesson.

Here is where I learned by watching how the collective (and the organizers) dealt with the mistake.

The decision was made that the t-shirts would not be thrown away, but would be sold none-the-less.

This required a solution that was legal — if the t-shirts were to be sold, there needed to be transparency about the error.

Thus, the creation of a “waiver”, to attach to the ‘TYPO-T-SHIRTS” so no one would feel like they had been tricked into purchasing something defective (and indeed, potentially humiliating).

It was a waiver that drew on the pleasures of the artistic and performative, inviting a stance of gentleness and humour.  Here is a close-up.


I love this waiver.  It functions on so many layers.

Now, the point of a joke is that you should not have to explain it.

Still, I have spent some time trying to think about WHY it works, partly because of a concern with the ways that jokes sometimes work through exclusion: there is usually someone or something that is the butt of the joke.

[As an aside, I highly highly recommend Tania Modleski’s wonderful article “Rape Vs. Mans/Laughter: Blackmail,” In The Women Who Knew Too Much:  Hitchcock and Feminist Theory, 17-30. New York: Routledge, 1989.  Don’t be put off by the title.  She has a fantastic analysis of the Robert Doisneau photo, “Un Regard Oblique”.  it totally transformed my appreciation of the visual field in which someone is literally made the butt of a joke.”]

This joke feels, to me, like it works through inclusion, and that it does so in politically and strategically interesting ways.

At the risk of moving from the world of pleasure to the world of overthinking (but I am, at the end of the day, an academic, and that is what we do!), here are some of my thoughts on the power of this  joke:

  1. First, the form of the waiver itself, applied in this context, invites us to move our attention from the failure of spelling, to poke fun at law itself.  The waiver is a model of law’s capacity to over-respond to error, to intervene with a structure of repair that is disproportionate to the original mistake.    The excessive approach of a waiver is a playful response that turns the spelling error into another critical engagement with both the powers and the failures of legal responses to accidents.
  2. This playfulness from within also draws on the legal form of alternative arguments, evoking the tradition of oral submissions: “Your honour, I will be making the following three arguments”.  The purchaser is invited to draw themselves into the dialogue, to position themselves as lawyers, to select the argument that they find most compelling.
    1. The first invites them to a position of sovereign overload, who can acknowledge the error, or position themselves as magnanimously choosing to “overlook” it,  to forego what would otherwise be their right to sue, while allowing the seller to simultaneously obfuscate the presence of any error (in the “which may or may not be spelled incorrectly” portion).
    2. The second is a position which invites the buyer to re-define the category of ‘mistake’ by denying that the typographical choices constitute a mistake in the first place, celebrating beauty in imperfection.   This stance invites a reader to play inside the discourses of meaning and individuality, to celebrate the ‘mistake’ rather than position it as failure.  In effect, this choice sees the purchaser as standing in solidarity with the typer.
    3. The invocation of the small print plays with the question of that which is hidden and visible at the same time.   The act of filling the space of the small print with the words ‘small print’ does a mockery of that tradition, with a small hint of Jack Nicholson’s character in the film The Shining (with the horror of the repetition of the phrase “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”).
    4. And of course, there is the final line, which does the mode of political reinscription.  Here, the mistake is actively recuperated, with the construction of a wholly new word, which combines Indigenous lives with the state of Indignation that is fully appropriate to our political times.  And thus, the ability to claim that “when you’re Indigenous and Indignant, you’re Indigneous”.


There is MUCH to be learned from thinking about what mistakes have to offer us!


If you want to read more about the Testify Project, here are some links to follow: