Some “Business Associations” materials (LaRue meets Big River First Nation)

At the end of this post, such as it is, you will find a small gathering of resources from my Business Associations class at UVic. One of the challenges in the Business Associations context is how to teach in ways that connect to the broad context in which economic work is situated (ie. not only in corporate boardrooms, but also in small businesses, local cooperative movements, and community-innovations). Another of the challenges for all law schools at this point is how to develop teaching resources that engage with Indigenous law, and Indigenous legal orders. In this point, I offer a few materials at the intersection of these two questions in the context of “LaRue Investments” and “Big River First Nation v Agency Chiefs Tribal Council Inc“. 2020 SKQB 273.

Let me back up to say that, over the years, I have drawn on some of the challenges that have emerged in the context of the family-owned closely-held corporation (LaRue Investments Ltd) that is the owner of the Shuswap lands that have been such an important part of the growing up experience of so many in my extended family.

“The Lake” (as we call it) is at the centre of important identity-forming moments for so many of my siblings and cousins. It has also been at the centre of a series of family conflicts that have resulted in nearly 20 years of litigation, involving schisms between people. And so (given that much of the documentation is public), I have sometimes used moments of family history in the classroom, as a way of walking students through a ‘small-scale-but-story-rich’ case study to explore how the concepts we study in the statutory materials have application in many different locations. It is also a way of making visible that the phrase ‘business is business’, often hides another refrain, which is ‘business is personal’!

By this, I mean that an understanding of the affective and emotional dimensions of economic problems can be really important for solicitors. Indeed, it can be just as important as it is for lawyers doing family law, or wills and estates. But it can be a challenge figuring out how to “teach” emotion and affect in the context of the business associations classroom. Getting personal by using the family business has been one strategy.

For many years, I was also able to have the students think about how to work with a client by bringing my mother to class. She was the corporate memory for LaRue, and had worked with many different lawyers over the years. She was well positioned to talk to the students about challenges that had arisen, and about the things that she had done well, as well as about the mistakes that she had made. Quite a gift! One of the gifts was a mistake. Let’s call this mistake “Removing a Director from the Registry”. The short version would be this: Arta believed that one of the Directors was not eligible to be a Director, so she went and filled out the Notice of Change of Directors form and submitted it to the Corporate Registry. The questions raised by the mistake were:

  • What is the appropriate process for removing a director?
  • What was the legal effect of submitting a form saying a director had been removed?
  • Might this action be called “oppression”?
  • What remedy would fix the harm?

NOTE: There are many longer versions of this event (which happened in 2003). If you want to follow the longer story, you can check out the history section of the LaRue Investments Ltd website. You will find there a set of video interviews in which Arta talks about the longer versions of this story.

In the classroom, I give the students all the background on this saga. It allows us to look at all the ways directors can be replaced, as well as at the relationships between Directors, and Officers. It lets us see that it is actually very simple to fix some mistakes (eg. all you have to do is submit a new Notice of Directors…no big deal). One can also see that the bigger problem might lie in the ongoing relationships between the parties, and not so much in the legal documentation.

So lets’s add in an Indigenous Law piece. It is the case of Big River First Nation and Agency Chiefs Tribal Council Inc. The case comes out of the Non-Profit Sector, but gets at the same question as above: what happens when group A tries to remove someone from group B as a director?

What makes the case doubly interesting is that the Judge here refers not only to Canadian law (working with Saskatchewan law dealing with non-profit corporations), but also to Cree law.

Click on the link below for an 8 minute video I prepared about this case for students in my 2020 version of Law 315: Business Associations

If you need a bit more backstory on the legal pieces before jumping into the ‘classrooom link’, here are a few more resources. First, here is a summary of the case from CanLII.

Here is a blogpost about the case by (former law student) Miny Atwal.

The link below will connect to a PDF version of some of my annotations on the case.

I will be so very interested to hear what others make of the case, and how these two stories together might facilitate some of the important conversations we need as we begin struggling towards ways of working through the complicated business of problem solving!

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.

“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.

Cedar in Clay

Clay pendants carrying the trace of cedar

I love the time spent with family in Secwepemculecw (the Shuswap), surrounded by forests of cedar.

I love cedar, and I love clay, and was looking forward last spring to making another series of cedar necklaces.


The first step in the process is to gather some cedar boughs.

Walking amongst the cedars with my mother, Arta

We are surrounded by cedar, so it is not a challenge to find some branches to work with.

But it is a moment where I always find myself being a bit more ‘intentional’ than I ordinarily am.

I find myself thinking of all the stories I have learned from Salish people on the coast about cedar, ancient stories of transformation, which speak to the linked relationship between humans and the world in which we live.

Sun shining down through the branches

In one of these, a generous and giving person is transformed into a tree, a tree that remains generous and giving. (check out this link for more on cedar).

I find myself thinking about my own obligations to acknowledge my use of the tree, to be conscious taking no more than I need as I strip some small branches off of larger boughs, attentive to spread out my gatherings, so as not to take too many from any single bough.

Cedar boughs spreading out over the moss on the forest floor

I find myself trying to be conscious in my expression of gratitude for the branches that I am taking, noting that the thoughts of gratitude also seem to ‘wake me up’ a bit.

I find myself paying more attention to the trees themselves, to the forest floor beneath them, to the sun breaking in through the branches up above, and and building my own relationship to the specific trees I return to each year.


With a handful of cedar branches in hand, it is time to start working with the clay.

I came out to the lake with a number of different coloured clays, though my favourite clay for this purpose is  Klamath Yellow.  I love working with this clay.  It is lovely for throwing.  Though it is yellow when it is wet, it transforms in the kiln to a gorgeous earthen red.


I do, nonetheless, feel conscious of a certain discomfort with its name.  It took me a while to learn that the name is a reference to the Klamath Indians of Southern Oregon.  But I am left thinking about the name?  Maybe the clay comes from there? Or is it more like identifying something as “Indian Red”?  The question remains in my mind, but at the same time, I am reminded that the clay itself (whatever name one attaches to it) is both beautiful and powerful.

Before speaking more about the process of making necklaces, let me share “a lesson” that I was once taught on the question of how I should think and speak about my relationship to the clay.

In the summer of 2016, I was at a preliminary organizing meeting for a Truth and Reconciliation event called “Find Your Call to Action” that was being put on by the SNTC (the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council) in Tk’emlups (Kamloops).  The organizers and elders were planning the shape of the full day event, at which I was going to be one of the primary speakers.  The planning included attention to things like ceremony, language, and healing.

Over the course of that summer, with the release of the TRC executive summary, I had been thinking lots about what Reconciliation meant for me, a settler woman whose heart felt irrevocably tied to the Shuswap, land that is in unceded Secwepemc territory.  What would it mean for me to begin living in that space in accordance with principles of Secwepemc law?  As part of my own TRC work, and my own commitment to begin learning how to act in accordance with Indigenous protocols, I had spent the summer making pendants that could be given away in the context of conversations about both the TRC and Indigenous Law.   I was hoping to bring clay pendants as gifts for the (150) participants at the Kamloops event.

trc-workshop-find-your-call-to-actionAt the organizational meeting, I wanted to discuss this plan with the elders, in order to ensure that the necklaces could be added to the program at an appropriate moment (so it would not disrupt the flow of events).  But in raising the matter of the necklaces, I was also worried that it would seem (in my offering of these gifts) that I was pulling attention to myself, or that it was ‘too much’ to offer.   And so, trying somewhat to to minimize my own worries that someone might think I wanted to be compensated for time or materials, I said something like, “Don’t worry about it.  Its not a big deal.  It’s just a bit of clay.”

It was then that Splatsin elder Juliana Alexander said to me, “Don’t ever say that again.”


Not the response I was expecting.

But she went on, with real gentleness.  “You can say it IS clay.  But not JUST clay.   When we tell you the Earth is our Mother, we mean it.”

I have spent so much time thinking about the correction she offered me, about the real the generosity in what she said, and the way she pushed me to think differently about the clay.  I have, of course, heard many people use that phrase “the earth is our mother,” but (confession time), in the past I would have processed such words as a kind of new-age-feel-good thing, and not a statement with any teeth (so to speak).  Indeed, when she first spoke those words to me, I found myself thinking that she was wrong, and that her statement did not apply to the pendants I had made.  That is, I had NOT used clay from Secwepemc territory, but had instead worked with clay that I had purchased from a company in Seattle.  And who knew where the clay actually came from!

A young ‘me’ with a taste for the earth

But that is not what Juliana Alexander was telling me.  She was pushing me to think more deeply about the way I understood my relation to the earth in general, and not making a statement about a specific relationship between the territory and that particular box of clay.  She was inviting me to take the longer view, and to take a more metaphysical understanding of my relationship to the clay… to the earth.

That is a relationship (me and the earth) that has always been visceral (thus the photo to the right of me chowing down on dirt).  But her comments pushed me to think back to the stories of transformation I have been learning, stories of people being transformed into deer, into trees, into rocks.  Her comments encourage me to begin thinking about those stories of transformation with an adult’s eyes, and not only a child’s.

And so I find myself thinking more about what the earth/the clay has to teach me about relationships and transformations. I find myself thinking about my years as a child, handling the rocks on the beach, rocks that traveled to that place from other places, carried through glacial movement, scraping rivers out of mountains as they moved, left behind with the melting ice, rocks broken into smaller and smaller pieces with time.  I find myself remembering that the earth is the place from which life emerges, and to which all life returns. And I think about that earth providing the nutrients for growth, nourishing plants, trees, animals, people. And thinking about earth adhering as clay, and the capacity of that clay to be worked into new shapes, to be fired into new forms with the heat of transformation.  And I am grateful for Juliana Alexander’s admonishment that I not think about that clay as if it were “just” clay, but to grasp the magnitude of saying instead that it “is” clay.

And to think of it thus is an encouragement to shift myself in relationship to earth.  It is an encouragement to be present in that relationship.  It is an encouragement to be alive to all the connections that are present in those moments working with the clay.  It is, in a sense that is meaningful, time spent with ancestors, time spent with the past, time spent with family, time spent connecting to the future.


Pieces of cedar rolled into a red clay, and drying on a bat

Let me step back from questions of ontology and metaphysics, to questions of pragmatics.  How, precisely, do I invite cedar and clay into conversation?

With cedar gathered, the next step is to roll out a slab of clay to work with.  Place the clay on a wooden bat.

Then, place pieces of cedar on the clay, trying to imagine the shape of the pendant you eventually hope to see.

In placing the cedar on the clay, you have a choice here of “face up” or “face down”, since each choice will give you a different imprint in the clay (is the just a way of making visible that the top and bottom of the cedar have different patterns?)

Cedar pendants in yellow clay, drying

Then, roll the pieces of cedar into the clay.  At this point, you need the clay to be fairly soft so that it will hold the cedar in place.

And then, you need to let the clay firm up.  Here, place a second wooden bat on top so that the clay does not curl as it starts to dry.

Once the clay is firm (not yet to leather hard),  you can make the cuts that will separate the clay into the fragments that will be individual pendants.

This is the time to alter the clay of each pendant by adding additional marks that will later serve to ‘catch’ or ‘break’ the glazes you might add.

You can also add a hole through which a cord can later be attached.

Then, let the pendants dry.  As they dry, they will begin to shrink.

Coming out of the bisque fire, yellow clay now burnt orange

Sometimes the pieces of cedar will fall off at this point, but more frequently, they will stay fixed in the clay.

I don’t worry about this, as the cedar will simply burn off in the kiln, leaving its imprint even more firmly behind.

Once the pendants are fully dry (this might take a day or two, depending on the weather), they can be put in the kiln for a first (bique) firing.  I fire them up to Cone 04 (which is something like 1941 degrees fahrenheit).

Post firing – traces of cedar ash

From loading the kiln, to the full firing, to the cool-down, it is generally a day.

At this point, it is time to glaze.

Glaze is its own kind of magic.

I suppose one could think of it as akin to paint, but the colour of the glaze when in liquid form has very little (next to nothing?) to do with what it will look like at the end.  It interacts with both the clay body and the temperature of the firing to produce the finished product.

And the layering of glazes can produce effects that are completely unlike the two things you put together (if you want to geek out on glazes, check out what happens if you combine Saturation Metallic with Chun Plum!).  In short, glazing is another chance to spend time thinking about layers, and mixtures, and contact.

Glazed pendants loaded into the kiln, ready for the fire!

But before the glaze comes wax resist. The wax resist is a crucial part of the process.

It gets painted into any spot where you want the bare clay to show through (as it will prevent any glaze from adhering to the clay).

If you use glaze at all, it is crucial to get the wax in the hole at the top, as the pendants will have to hang suspended from a rod during the next firing.

Because the glaze will turn into liquid glass when it is fired, it cannot come into contact with any other surfaces without creating a permanent bond.  So… if the pendants are to be glazed on both sides, then have to be suspended while in the kiln.

Adding wax resist to the cedar pendants

With some of the pieces, I paint the wax resist into the imprint of the cedar.  With others, I explore the layering of glazes.

And finally, it is back into the kiln to be fired again, this time to cone 6 (around 2250 degrees Fahrenheit).

Again, a day of waiting before the kiln cools down enough that you can unload, and see what magic emerges from the fire.IMG_20180415_185456

In short, spending a few weeks in the summer with clay and cedar is a chance to think about time, temperature, and transformation.

It is a gift to have that space to think, and to breathe, and to reconnect myself to a place while keeping my eyes and my hands firmly in the world around me.

And as for the pendants?  They feel like friends.

They will find their way out into the world, hopefully carrying with them all the traces of our conversations together.

“On Compression — or, There is a Crack in Everything” (Pendants 2018)

The lake view while working with clay on a cool April morning

Every year, I try to spend some time with extended family in Secwepemc Territory (The Shuswap), my hands deep ‘in the mud’.

I have been doing this for years, spending some summer weeks sitting at the pottery wheel under my aunt and uncle’s deck, enjoying the sights and sounds of the land (and people) around me, while playing with clay.
This year, other obligations meant that I would have little time available, so I carved off a few weeks in early April to make sure I could get in some time working on pendants for the Testify project I have been part of. (For more on that, see  My goal was to make another series of “multi-juridical” pendants, thinking about the intersection of the Testify project, with the launch of the new JD/JID law degree at UVic, a combined degree in Canadian Common Law and Indigenous Legal Orders.

A counter-top full of pendants

What I want to share here are some of the thoughts I had (lessons learned?) while working on a project of “intersections” during a different season that the one I was accustomed to.  Usually, I am at the lake in the summer.  But this time it was spring.
Because the ‘summer crew’ of cousins and their children don’t usually arrive until the end of school, it was rather quiet out there.  The weather was also still cool.  My own processes for working with clay have been honed in the context of hot summer days, trying to stay in the shade, and working to make sure the clay doesn’t dry too fast.  This time, the chill of the air limited the amount of time I could comfortably spend outside at the wheel, and the combination of chill and moisture in the air meant that my process had to slow down to allow pieces more time to dry.
This reminded me that both context and process are important sites for learning things. It also gave me the chance to think more about time and ‘seasonality’ in the work that I do.    I was reminded of how many lessons I have been taught by the clay I have tried to work with.  One of the lessons that clay offers me is that time matters.  Working with the clay this summer, I was reminded of the need to slow down and wait.  For me, waiting until the clay is ready for the next step of the process has always been one of the hardest parts.  And this spring, when I couldn’t rely on hot dry air to speed things along, I had to wait even longer.  And so I had the opportunity to think about both time and compression.
Let me begin by sharing the basic process behind the ‘multijuridical pendant’


Balls of clay, oxides added

  • Start with a large lump clay, and divide it into several segments.
  • Add a different oxide to each of segments to transform its colour.
  • Slice each of the coloured balls into the balls into a number of sections, and then layer them on top of each other with slices of uncoloured clay,
  • Wedge the clay to both remove any air bubbles, and allow the layers of colour to move against, with, and around each other.
  • Divide the clay back into smaller segments, rolling each into a ‘log shape’
  • Use a metal rib to cut the clay to create slices.
  • Let the slices partially dry, then use a cutting tool to make a hole by which the pendant can be hung.
  • Once fully dry, fire in a kiln to cone 6 (2230 degrees farenheit).


layered clay, sliced into pieces

For me, working with the clay gives me space and time to think about legal pluralism and the ‘multi-juridical’.   That is, time to think about the ways that different legal orders (clay to which colour has been added) might interact with each other in the context of a shared world (the background white in this context is ‘the earth’, not ‘Canadian law’). Are there are way of working with multiple colours in ways that respect their individual integrity?  That don’t presume one colour to be better than the other?

There are so many lessons along the way, some of them in the product, but others in the process.  How the clays interact with each other is a function of the kind of external pressure that I add (the kind of contact I imagine).  The more you wedge (or knead), the more the individual layers of colour will become thin (or start to blend into something new, rather than to maintain distinct lines).

If there is no pressure along the line of contact, there will be no interaction.  I will simply have two colours sitting alongside each other with one layer of contact.  They do need to be pushed and moved into engagement with each other.  It is the pressure of engagement (along with the twists involved) that wind them into a deeper engagement with each other.

two pendants that are mirrors of each other

There is then the magic in ‘the cut’.  Each cut reveals a unique or particular pattern. Each cut is a specific slice in time, one that connects the present and the past.  Each cut produces pendants that are siblings (or parent and child?).  These two pendants, for example, were side by side in a single slice through the log of clay.  While not perfect mirrors of each other, it is clear that they were at one point joined — and that my knife (the blade of time) enabled difference to emerge in the space between them.

the same two pendants, opposite sides

The role of time is also visible within each individual pendant, since each is produced through a double cut — a left and right, a front and back, a beginning and an end.  I find it interesting that if you flip them over, to see “time” extending out from each of them (i.e. back to the past on one pendant, towards the future on the other), what you see is quite different.  And so, while ‘sibling sides’ generally are mirrors of each other, the opposite sides of each makes more visible how each pendant carries the traces of its connection to the past and the future.

The phase of cutting is both magic and repetitive. Each slice reveals something unexpected.  When doing this, I caution myself to be measured, and watch out for repetitive strain injury.  I try to remind myself, but sometimes can’t stop myself. Too often, I continue well beyond the point when a rational person would stop for a rest, part of the intrigue of wondering what the next slice will reveal.

careful in adding the hole…things break!

In working with a role of clay, in making the cuts, I am also reminded of the role of time, and of the importance of waiting… but of not waiting too long.  If I am too quick to cut, and the mixture of clay has not had time to ‘stabilize’, time for the mixture of clays (legal orders) to settle, then the slice of the blade will blur the edge of the colours.  But if I wait too long, the clay will be hard to cut and I risk cracking the slice, or cutting my own fingers against the edge of the metal rib. I am reminded of the importance of knowing the clay, and of paying attention.

And so, each piece requires careful handling to pull it away from the main piece without muddying the colours.  There is also the lesson about ‘rough edges’.  Take care to smooth off any rough edges on the piece.  Rough edges, once the piece is fired in the kiln, will be transformed into something with the sharpness of a knife.  And yet, in handling each piece, take care not to muddy the line of the clay. Every touch of my fingers on the piece leaves a trace of my hand and of any dust that was lingering there.  In short, watch for sharp edges while also minimizing contact with the piece.

And then, I wait.  The clay needs to be nearly to the ‘leather hard’ stage before I use another cutting tool to add a hole.  But if I wait too long, I increase the risk that I will break the piece in the process of making the hole.  It is a matter of waiting for the right time to intervene, and the challenge is in being able to identify the need for contact, while being light with the touch.  (And I find myself wondering if the lessons I am learning are about clay or about better ways of parenting!)

And so I return to the question of time.  Because once the cuts and holes have been made, it is a matter of waiting to see if the piece will fully dry without cracking.

clay lightly kneaded – cracks emerged

This spring, I saw the one of the batches of pendants was drying in a way that left a huge crack appearing in more than ½ the centre of the pieces. At first, I was devastated — while I had been doing the cutting, I had though that it was my favourite batch ever.  So what happened?  Why all the cracks?

It is not at all uncommon that a crack emerges during the drying process, particularly when dealing with mugs or bowls that I have thrown on the pottery wheel.    I found myself thinking back to discussions with former pottery teachers about this challenge.

When I am throwing a bowl on the wheel, one of the first questions is whether I have adequately compressed the bottom.  To do this, I need to run my fingers back and forth across the bottom, applying pressure to force the clay molecules more tightly against each other.

That is, I must apply pressure.  If I don’t apply enough pressure this is the mostly likely place for a crack to emerge.  Sometimes the crack shows up as the pot dries.  Sometimes it doesn’t show up until after the first firing in the kiln, and sometimes the crack only shows up after the second glaze firing.

A crack emerging after the second firing

I can’t tell you the number of pots I have grieved for, pots that have been heavily invested with love, only to emerge from the kiln, looking as beautiful as they did when I put them in, but having a crack across the bottom, rendering them unusable.  Or rather, unusable for the purpose for which I had originally intended.  I have many vessels that were imagined as mugs but that live the exitence of pencil holder, since a tiny crack in the bottom ensures that any beverage that is added to it will return in short order to the earth.

I do know that a crack in the bottom of a mug or bowl is most frequently the result of my failure to apply adequate pressure.

pendants ready to take out of the kiln

And this is what happened to this particular batch of pendants.  I was aiming for pendants with larger blocks of colour on the inside, and so was very cautious at the kneading stage. I simply did not apply enough pressure.

And this caution also applied to the cutting stage.  Usually I press the pendants between to flat surfaces as they dry.  This time, I didn’t think I needed to since the air seemed so wet.  I thought they were most beautiful in the making, so beautiful that I feared to apply any pressure to the centre, worrying only about the edges.

At first I thought I would throw them out.  But on reflection, I decided to fire them through to the end of the process.

Unlike my mugs or bowls, the pendants don’t need to hold a liquid.

But I think they will be holding the trace of a thought.

A thought about the challenge of finding the right amount of pressure to apply.

Or maybe just a reminder for me to think about the places where I fear having pressure applied to me.
Maybe there is a way for me to think about my own capacity to understand the pressure at the centre, and particularly the pressure early in a process as being useful for what will later be possible.
So, maybe one insight is not for me to apply more pressure to others, but for me to think about myself as the clay?
FINAL NOTE:  On making the knots for the cords

Completed pendants awaiting cords

Tying the knots is tricky for some, but also kinda fun.

Below are a few DIY videos, which demonstrate a number of different ways to tie the sliding knots to the cord. (same as above, but left-handed)

The Blanket Exercise – Part 3

Encounter #4 – Preparing for Action – The UVic Faculty & Staff Experience

A trial run planned for a quiet morning in the Fraser Building

With the knowledge that Hadley Friedland had run it at the University of Alberta for first year students and that it had gone very well, and having done the exercise twice myself, we began discussions within our faculty about the possibility of trying it ourselves.   I began to seriously consider doing it as part of our Legal Process Course the following year.

However, before making the commitment to run this with our first year students, we thought it best for faculty and staff to have the experience ourselves so we might have a better idea of how it might be experienced by the students.  This, we thought, would help us better sketch out what kinds of support we might want to put in place for this exercise.

And thus it was that, on a quiet day after classes had ended for the summer, a  group of twenty faculty and staff gathered together to do a trial run of the exercise.  We chose Our Indigenous colleagues Val Napoleon and Darcy Lindberg to play the roles of the colonizers. While I suppose it is not necessary, there is some value in having one of your Indigenous colleagues play this role.  By ‘cross-casting,’ the person playing the colonizer is able to occcupy that role with some distance, and without as much angst. It also avoids replicating colonial roles in the encounter for Indigenous colleagues (ie don’t put people in the roles they historically might have had).

We didn’t do much in the way of preparation, since we were largely thinking about  questions like ‘long would it run’ and ‘could we do it ourselves’ or ‘did we need experts’? We also were thinking about how to ‘break’ the exercise. That is, we were beta-testing, in the hopes that we could anticipate the hard parts, and be prepared with responses in the event that something unexpected happened (as is so often the case in life).

Unbeknownst to the rest of us, our two associate deans (Gillian Calder and Freya Kodar) had determined that they would take on the role of Indigenous resisters, and see just how far they could push the facilitators (imagining a scenario where students might make such a choice).  As the exercise unfolded, they engaged in increasingly visible acts of resistance, drawing on accounts I had given them of my earlier experience in Whitehorse and pushing it even further. At the height of their most rebellious moments, Val, who was playing the role colonizer, finally went off script, simply went up to the two of them and told them they were dead and moved them off of the blankets and to the side. So.  That took care of that! (or at least, let us see what ways we might have to creatively respond to resistance without paralysis, while still staying within the spirit of the exercise).

After this, the rest of  exercise proceeded in line with the script.  That unexpected resistance in role-playing by Gillian and Freya certainly gave us more to talk about in our debrief circle at the end.  For all of us, it opened space for a discussion of the more brutal (and even ‘illegal’) forms of state action and repression.  The debrief was also a great way for us all to learn about our shared history together (important at this juncture in time), and for staff and faculty to be sharing some of our fears, hopes and insights about working together with the students.  It certainly generated conversation that was open and relationship enhancing.

In doing this very small scale trial run experience, there were many small logistics details that also became visible to us.  We could better see the challenges of being able to hear individual speakers (neither Val nor Darcy had booming public speaking voices) and a better appreciation of how many blankets we would actually need to cover the projected space. The most important part of this exercise was helping faculty to become comfortable with the format and content of the exercise so that we would be positioned to anticipate places where the exercise might be challenging for some students and to think about steps we could take in advance to ensure a supportive environment for the experience.

Having had a number of discussions about the exercise, about its strengths and limits, and about the ways we might work with it (or that it might work on us), we prepared to run the event with our first year students.

Encounter #5 – Running the Exercise at UVic as part of Law 106: The Legal Process

The planning for the event required us to spend time really engaging with the substantive guts of “trauma-informed practice”, and more mundane but no less crucial guts of the logistics of organizing an event for the full first year class.

a.  Mandatory or Voluntary?

After our trial run, we debated whether or not to make attendance mandatory. We were conscious of the richness of conversation around voluntary vs. mandatory learning, and there were compelling arguments on both sides.  It seemed obvious that there would be people (whether students, faculty or staff) for whom the exercise might be quite challenging or upsetting.  But on the other hand, there are many elements of the first year curriculum that are difficult for Indigenous and newcomer students alike (this is self-evident to Criminal Law profs!).  Many courses contain elements can be very difficult for our students, but they remain mandatory nonetheless.  We also worried about signalling that our Indigenous students were too fragile for the exercise, or already knew everything that would be covered, or that the difficulty of a topic should be dealt with through distancing. In addition, the substantive content in the Blanket Exercise was in support of the work that was planned by the professors teaching the Constitutional Law and Property Law classes. A further issue was that the exercise was being done as part of the Legal Process course, which is a course that has always been evaluated in part through mandatory attendance.  Would we make an exception for an exercise focused on the place of law in colonial history? A final consideration was that Call to Action #28 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report had called for mandatory education about residential school.

Even though we were leaning in the direction of mandatory attendance, we still struggled: we could imagine there might be good reasons to allow some people with particularly complicated histories to have the opportunity to opt out.  And we did discuss opening the possibility that there might be some students who could fill the mandatory requirement in a different way.  But given that we had a class of students were were new to us and each other, we did not have a good mechanism for identifying people who might find it difficult.  If we were to send out specific emails, we would be operating on guess-work, and perhaps unfounded assumptions.

After much discussion, we decided that attendance would be expected.  Our goal was to emphasize this event as part of the regular curriculum, and something that the entire school was invested in.  Part of emphasizing to the students the importance of the activity was signaled through having nearly all of our Legal Process Professors (that is, all professors teaching first year courses) participate in the Blanket Exercise. We had our  Dean (Jeremy Webber) be one of the participants, taking on one of the primary narrator roles (reading all of the “Legal Issues” slides).

b. Putting Supports in Place

The UVic Amicus Team: Christina, Tim, Yvonne and Darcy

Once we decided the exercise would be mandatory, we worked to put in place a rich layer of supports.  We involved our full Amicus Team, including our embedded counsellor. We also had active involvement from the Indigenous Law Students Association, and the Law Students Society.

I would really emphasize here the value of including the Indigenous students in the planning and operationalization of the Exercise.  Upper year Indigenous students played key roles (both speaking parts, and carrying microphones to those reading scrolls) in the exercise, which meant that there were many levels of mentoring and engagement that extended beyond the exercise.

photo by Maryse Bernard

We also coordinated with the   the First People’s House at UVic, which has elders in residence, and the space to do smudging and other ceremony that might be helpful to Indigenous students who might feel the impact more deeply than anticipated.

As an aside, we highly recommend building close relationships between the law school and similar Indigenous Institutions you have at your own universities:   so many times, our Indigenous students have been supported by the First Peoples house where are own capacities have been either underdeveloped or absent. So too, they have provided us in the law school (faculty and staff) with ideas, suggestions, and support as we have worked to learn more about ways we can better do the work of Truth, Reconciliation and Justice in Law.

c. The Logistical Challenges

On the logistics front, we turned our attention to the questions of both ‘when’ and ‘where’.  With respect to timing, we decided against holding it in the first few weeks of classes when students are still getting to know each other and are experiencing a level of vulnerability that is common to people at the start of a new program.  At the same time, we didn’t want to wait too long, since we wanted the exercise to provide a common foundation for the work students would start doing in their constitutional and property law classes. So we choose a day 6 or 7 weeks into the term and re-designated all first year  morning classes that day as classes in the Legal Process Course.  This would enable all 120 students in the program to attend the exercise.  Though the actual exercise would be complete by lunch time, we also cancelled all first-year afternoon classes, so the students would have down-time after the event: time to process their own learning at their own speed.

With timing settled, we had to tackle basic logistic questions around the ‘where’.  We needed to find a room that would enable us to have 125 people first walking around in an open space, and then later sitting on chairs in circles of roughly 25 people.   The Law School itself did not have a room with that capacity so we rented a space in the Student Union Building on campus.  We organized the space in advance (chairs, blankets, powerpoint, audio system, tables on the sides, etc), and set up stationary microphones and mobile microphones to ensure participant speakers could be heard when it was time to read their scrolls.img_20180727_1043063

We also decided to provide food: oranges and apples, Halloween candy, bottles of water and seaweed snacks (this is the West Coast, after all!). The goal was both to enact the principle of feeding the body while feeding the mind, but also to provide a way for students to move themselves out of one space and into another in a natural way.

As with the Whitehorse example, we included objects placed on the floor so that people could pick them up, carry them, and have things to trade or touch. In feedback, after the event, some student spoke specifically to the value of these objects, saying that they found it helpful, when parts of the exercise were difficult, to have something in their hands to provide a focus point for them.

d. Closing the Circle

The Blanket Exercise closes with a debriefing session done using a circle.   While the exercise had proceeded with the full cohort on the blankets, we now divided them back into their small sections, so that the circle/debrief was conducted within a small group of 20-25 people who had already developed close relations with each other in the context of their first two weeks intensive course.  In this context, the students were coming back to this specific small group format after 4 weeks in the standard classes.  For the debrief, rather than having it be ‘open’, there were some guiding questions.  Each person in the circle was invited to share two things: one thing they learned from the event, and one thing they would like to learn more about.  In terms of the structure of the circle, we have found that it is optimal to have two faciliators there, sitting beside each other, so that the first person ‘opens’ the circle (is the first to speak), and the other ‘closes’ the circle.  This gives a bit more control to the facilitators, in terms of the ability to offer some words in their final comments that might address anything that came up in the circle that was challenging or difficult.

Finally, students were asked to do a short reflection piece (a few lines to a few paragraphs) the day after the event on their Coursespace Blog.  In part, this was to remain consistent with the structure of the Legal Process Course, in which there was a blog requirement at the end of each day of the course.  But we also hoped that this requirement would provide students with an opportunity to further process their own response to the event, and indeed, they were invited to give critical commentary if they so desired.  From my perspective as the Director of the Legal Process course, the student blogs were insightful, inspiring and hopeful.  Some of them were also difficult.  Where students students had found the exercise hard, they had no problem telling us so.  And they were also incredibly generous in sharing some ideas about additional/different things we might try the next time we ran the exercise.

Circling Back After the Fact – Some Final Thoughts

While the set-up for 120 people is a lot of work, once the exercise begins, it does its own work. Part of its power is the content. Part of the work is the embodiment question. These kinds of pedagogies are certainly non-traditional within the law school context, but they do open up space for a quite different conversation about history and the way we place ourselves in it. I imagine that over time, it might be possible to continue to adapt the script in response to the experiences of colonization in different provinces, and to contemporary events.  The more this history becomes part of our common heritage, the more room there will be to add additional layers of nuance to the event.

At UVic we continue to discuss the importance of such an exercise and whether participation by first year students should be mandatory. The exercise can be valuable from a pedagogical perspective because it gives students a common lived experience and language to build on throughout their program. We are conscious that the exercise must be trauma informed.  The first time we ran the blanket exercise we tried to do this through different methods by providing: on-site support; debrief and processing opportunities (circle and writing); and an option to opt out of the exercise with alternate “assignment” where potential trauma outweighed the benefits of participating in a group exercise.

In the end the vast majority of the students were there, and there was follow-up with those who had been unable to attend for any number of the usual reasons (sickness, family emergencies, surgery).  For the most part, I would say that the successes of the exercise outweighed the difficulties.  This is not to say there weren’t difficulties.   And in the aftermath, students did come to us with important questions about things that had been less than successful, and about strategies we might employ the next time around.

The question of ‘mandatory vs. voluntary’ continues to be a live one.  It is not unrelated to a second question, which is, ‘how much information do students need in advance.’   Though we told the students about the exercise in general, some were unprepared for the emotional impact.  This is a challenge since saying “this exercise engages with questions of residential school” may not be adequate preparation for students who have not had much prior education.  Our way of preparing the students may have been inadequate for some students with hard family histories with residential school, and who may feel the impact of the exercise in more complicated ways.   The students were not necessarily saying that they should be excused from the exercise, but rather that a thicker description might have enabled them to go into the exercise better equipped for the work that it might do.

We had sent a note to the students telling them it was mandatory, but also indicating that if they had concerns, they could speak with either me or the associate dean.  Our thinking was that this was a way for students with concerns to open a conversation (which would allow us to work with them to find an alternative).  But some students certainly did not see this as enough of an opening, and felt themselves to be required to be there in ways that were not helpful.  That is, with different information available (including a more explicit note that the exercise could be met in other ways), they may have chosen to do the exercise, but with a greater sense of freedom about that choice.

The conversations with the students after the fact were helpful in terms of helping us think more broadly about all the different ways to begin the conversation about the exercise (for example, that it might be helpful to include the students in a discussion about the values of mandatory and voluntary attendance).  We certainly were reminded that Indigenous students have long had to carry particularly heavy roles in law schools across Canada, and that it is not a bad idea to involve them earlier and more actively in the conversations about how to do the set up for exercises such as these.  For example, some Indigenous students nicely articulated for us the position that they KNEW the exercise was going to bear heavily on them, but that they also felt it important that they were visible there to their non-indigenous classmates.  What they sought was not necessarily an exemption, but a role in the decision-making that acknowledged the ways their participation was both important and signficant.

In short, the Blanket Exericse raises lots of hard questions. We do not have all the answers, but this should not stop us from participating in or running the exercise. Discomfort is an important part of the embodiment of what is being experienced and learned.  It matters that we work in collaborative ways that acknowledge that embodiment plays itself out differently for different people.  The use of embodied pedagogy in the exercise – physical, emotional and intellectual discomfort, role playing, the physical representation of territory, the movement through territory, the loss of territory, etc – leaves the experience planted in the brain and the body.


Click here for a link to the KAIROS website, which has more information on how you might take up the exercise in your own school, community, or institution.

Here below for thinks to reports on people using the blanket exercise in other Canadian Law Schools:

The Blanket Exercise – Part 2

Encounter #3 – Material Culture and Rebellion in Whitehorse

The Healing Totem in Whitehorse

My next encounter with the Blanket Exercise happened in Whitehorse, at a day long applied workshop on the TRC and the Calls to Action, being jointly sponsored by KAIROS, the Yukon Public Service Commission, the Council of Yukon First Nations and the Yukon Human Rights Commission.   The first half of the workshop was dedicated to the Blanket Exercise.

From the outset, there were some visible differences from the context of the exercise I had done in Montreal.  It was not just numbers (Montreal had involved a dozen or so people, and there were three times that many in Whitehorse). In Montreal, the organizers had no idea how many people would show up, and so there was a certain improvisational necessity involved.  In Whitehorse, people registered in advance, and so the organizers had a good sense of not only how many, but of which people would be there.

This time, the exercise was run by facilitators who clearly had significant experience with running the exercise, who knew how many people would be there, and who had a sense of comfort with the performative dimensions of the script. One of these dimensions involved the use of “material culture”:  the woman running this exercise had brought a large selection of goods, and she had placed them all over the blankets — moccasins, scarves, beads, wooden boxes, carvings, children’s knit mittens, animal pelts, and containers of medicine. When the exercise began and participants were invited to take our place on the blankets, we were also invited to pick up the items on the blankets and carry these objects with us.

Material culture embedded in the exercise

I found that this time, making introductory contact with others was much easier.  I wasn’t told simply to greet others; I had a concrete object in my hands, giving me an easy topic of conversation in case of awkwardness. It also meant I could take my attention off of the others on the blanket, and give attention to the thing I was holding.  It made me feel a bit less awkward.  Additionally, there was an instant bond between me and the object I first picked up — a pair of hand-made gloves that I knew to have been made by the mother of a student in our law school class. The object gave me something tactile, visual and sustainable. The ability to focus my attention on the object was less stressful to me than having to focus my attention of people’s faces.

As this was my second time with the exercise, I was also more curious about what people were thinking, so there was an impetus for me to go engage and exchange with others in a more exploratory way.   As I did so, I realized that there was something more going on with the use of the objects. Early on in the exercise I recognized that not only did I have an object that I really loved, but also that it was “worth” more than many of the other objects people were carrying. Nevertheless I found myself seeking out people with other items and hoping to trade with them, which would mean surrendering my (valuable) object for their (less valuable) item. In part, I knew that none of these goods were really mine and so the question of value didn’t matter. At the same time, having a more valuable object gave me an inroad to making a connection with someone else on the blanket. I quickly realized that though my object may have been worth more than theirs, the exchange of my more valuable goods with what they had available was a way for me to open a conversation with that person, a way of building a relationship for the future.

Gaining that insight through this additional element of the exercise opened a spot for me to begin re-thinking my assumptions about trade. I recalled the ways in which people talk about Indigenous peoples as having made a bad trade, and realized that colonizers may have been really missing the point. The reasons for the trade may have been something very different than an assessment of equivalent values of the object.  The objects themselves might be part of the work of building longterm relations and commitments between people. For me, that piece of insight, which happened as part of the trading element of the exercise, before anything negative happened, was a piece of great value for my own understanding.

Throughout the entire exercise, we carried our goods with us. However, the goods of the people on the blanket who got small pox or who were killed off, were left behind, abandoned and alone on what become unoccupied blankets. In many cases these blankets were isolated from the other blankets and as such there was no way for those of us who remained to get them, for we couldn’t move to that space.  The loss of objects, and their ‘capture’ by the settlers, was very visible in this part of the exercise.

While participants in my McGill experiences were mainly settlers, in Whitehorse I had the opportunity to do the exercise where the majority of participants were Indigenous people.  There were also a significant number of participants (both Indigenous and settler) who were doing the exercise for the third or fourth time.   And so, there were some striking differences in how this experience unfolded.

As part of the exercise, corners of blankets are folded by the colonizers, reducing the “footprint” of the blanket. In Whitehorse I had the chance to witness another person on a blanket, enacting very strong, moments of rebellion. The colonizer/facilitator would push the blankets to reduce their space, but when the facilitator turned their back, the person simply ‘undid’ the fold, and returned their blanket to their former space.  I was taken aback, as it had not occurred to me that I could resist.  I also noticed one participant who kept their feet pinned to the corners of their blanket, with a very aggressive and hostile stance, trying to ‘face-down’ the colonizer.  It was disquieting to witness this stance — to see the anger and the determination in their refusal to move off of the blanket when instructed. It was in that moment that I realized, if that person was resisting, I, too, could resist. And so my own resistance was inspired and born, my own rebellion was supported.

From that time forward, I too, tried to keep as much of my body as possible on the blanket to prevent it from being pushed in. Shortly after this, one of the colonizers made us sit on the ground. When we were made to sit on the ground I had a strong experience of constraint. I am aging and my body is never as limber as I imagine it to be. So sitting on the floor, trying to occupy my space, was difficult when I couldn’t move around on the blanket. I experienced a certain amount of discomfort in my body as I was trying to maintain positions that were quite unnatural in order to continue to occupy space, in order to protect it from colonizers. Further, I noticed that each time that I thought I had re-stretched my blanket out, as soon as I gave my attention to another part of the floor for a moment, I would turn again to find that the settler had come around and pushed the blanket back once more, erasing the gains that I had worked so hard to maintain in the first place. I became aware that in order to protect my space, I had to keep my eyes on it at all times, taking my focus off of anything else that might be happening in the world around me.

At one point during my resistance, a colonizer came and stood right beside me. I was being actively surveyed. The person made it impossible for me to increase my resistance, constantly pushing my blanket into smaller and smaller form There was something claustrophobic about this encounter of restraint and constraint that left me feeling an anxiety in my body, something that I already knew intellectually, but had not expected to feel so viscerally in my body.  What was surprising to me was physically feeling an overlap between my intellectual knowledge and my body, being enacted through this pretend exercise of restraint.

As an aside, this version of the exercise also made use of powerpoint.  A screen was set up to one side of the room, and it projected sometimes the text of the scrolls that individuals were reading, and sometimes images which supported those scrolls. The powerpoint was an interesting addition, and I found myself wondering at the work it was doing.  The images sometimes added a visceral punch to the words we were hearing.  It also provided another site of focus when the affective parts of the exercise were mounting.  It also was a site of distraction that sometimes pulled me out of the embodied dimensions of the experience and into something that echoed with my classroom experiences (of greater distance).  I was left thinking about both the additions and detractions of having that additional visual/textual field.

I found the debrief session at the end of the exercise to be a site of significant learning.  During the circle, one of the Indigenous participants shared that they had participated in this exercise before and really hated it. They had started this time with a similar feeling. They had been wiped out with small pox right in the first round and thus been denied the opportunity to resist or rebel or to push back against the exercise and had been moved back to the side to sit in a chair and observe.  There was a moment however, when they thought about the ways the ancestors are said to be still present. This person began to consider how they might participate in the exercise even though they were dead. Though they were in the dead area of the circle, this person began calling out in a low whisper to Indigenous people in their quarter, messages of support and resistance, encouraging them to be strong, to stand in solidarity, to hold the line, to push back.

Leaving Whitehorse, and heading for home

It was also moving to listen to other other Indigenous participants who had remained on the blankets til the end, and to hear them speak of how powerful it had been to them to hear these words of support, love, and resistance being spoke from ‘the past/the ancestors’.  It pushed me to think about my own experiences of the relationship between the past and the present , and of the role of memory in evoking the strengths of those who have gone before, and how such memories can strengthen those who come after.

I felt very grateful to have been in circle with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants, learning from each of them about insights (whether comforting or painful) that had come up through this moment of shared experience.   The flight back to Victoria had my mind circling around questions of material culture and rebellion.

continue to Blanket Exercise – Part 3



The Blanket Exercise – Part 1


a basket of blankets, ready to go

In the Fall of 2017, the UVic Law Faculty decided to involve the full first year law school class in a form of the KAIROS Blanket Exercise as part of our mandatory Legal Process Course. We had been reflecting on the possibility of doing a Blanket Exercise for a number of years.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action (particularly #28, directed to Canada’s Law Schools) inspired us to start incorporating new ways of learning into our program.

In the interests of generating a conversation about embodied pedagogy and TRC work, I want to share here five different experiences that I have had with the blanket exercise (including the approach our law school took last year). Each encounter helped me recognize both the necessity and the challenges of doing trauma-informed, embodied pedagogy in the law school.

Just by way of provisional definition, by ‘embodied pedagogy’, I mean teaching in a way that acknowledges bodies, makes them visible, and moves them to the center of the learning experience. It is a way of teaching in which bodies are recognized as key to relationships, to understanding our histories of being, experiencing, and living in the world.

As you read about my description of each of the experiences I invite you to think about three different questions:

  1. What is the goal of the exercise? To share information? To gather information? To created a common foundation for further conversations?
  2. What advantages can embodied pedagogy bring to TRC work in the law school?
  3. Is it possible to create a safe space in which the experience can unfold, one that is trauma-informed?

By the end of this piece I hope to have articulated some of the reasons why the UVic Law School decided to involve all our students in the blanket exercises as a starting point for a common understanding of our history of Indigenous-Colonizer/Settler relationships. I hope also to have shared some insights that emerged from reflecting on multiple engagements with the exercise.

Encounter #1 – Nervous Reluctance at the Very Idea

My first encounter could perhaps be described as an encounter with an idea. That is, my first encounter was not through participation, but through description of the exercise: my colleague Maxine Matilpi had participated in a version of the KAIROS exercise, and suggested that we do it with our students at UVic. As I understood it from her description, a floor would be covered with blankets representing North America before contact. Over the course of an hour or so, people would be taken through Canadian history in a way that performed small-pox, genocide, residential school, the foster care system, dispossession and more. At the end of the exercise there would be a visual map capturing the ways in which colonial practices have resulted in fragmented communities. The exercise would be followed by a debriefing session in which participants could discuss their experience of the exercise. Maxine reported that participants had found the exercise to be a powerful way of understanding this swath of history in a more embodied fashion.

While the exercise sounded interesting, it also made me very nervous. It seemed like the exercise would raise a lot of hard questions in a context where I was not confident we in the law school (I?) would have the capacity to address them. I was worried that law students might be resistant, that it might generate backlash, and that it might produce more harm than good. But I kept my ears open. And other friends, including Hadley Friedland, stepped forward to make the suggestion again. But at each mention of the exercise, while I found myself saying that it sounded ‘conceptually interesting’, my primary affective response was one of nervous reluctance (and refusal).

Doing the blanket exercise in Edmonton

It was several years later that Hadley Friedland did what both Maxine and she had suggested that UVic should do. That is, she used the blanket exercise at University of Alberta with a group of over 200 law students and faculty.  She adapted the Kairos script to be more attentive to the law school context.  She involved people from local Indigenous communities and from the Indigenous Bar Association to facilitate discussion groups after the exercises.  She didn’t let ‘logistics’ stop her: since there wasn’t a room large enough in their law school to physically pull this off, the exercise was run in the gymnasium at U of A.  The event successfully met its objectives. Click below for accounts of the U of A experience in 2016 and 2017:

With my nervousness about the exercise tempered by evidence of its success at the University of Alberta law school, I moved in the direction of a small scale experiement – trying it myself.

Encounter #2 –  The McGill Welcoming Week Version

The first time I myself participated in the Blanket Exercise was in Montreal during a Welcome Week at McGill. I was in town visiting my sister, and it just so happened that a group of McGill students (NOT associated with the law school), were running the exercise, in a week where there were multiple competing events.  I was, in some ways, “a stranger in a strange land”, and there was some comfort in the idea of trying the exercise out in a context where I did not know anyone, and nobody really knew me.  It was clear that time was of the essence and things were being brought together at the last minute. This is shorthand for saying, it was a very bare-bones exercise. The presentation didn’t feel glossy or polished. The people who were playing the roles of the facilitators and the settlers were volunteers. They were real people doing an exercise. There were no expectations that people had memorized or rehearsed lines, or that they were working to a professional standard. And so we were called in as participants in just the same way: there was no expectation that we had to do anything other than follow instructions.

Certainly, there was something quite powerful in having the exercise flow out in what felt like a very ordinary way.   I felt a certain democratizing impulse in it in the way that the script was there and it didn’t require someone with an exceptional speaking voice to have power.

I was also struck by the relationship between what I knew in my head, and what that knowledge felt like when it took an embodied form. During the exercise, I was given a scroll which was to be read aloud at the relevant time.   The text referenced the death of Indigenous women. There was nothing in the text that was new to me – by that I mean that the data was something that I was accustomed to teaching in my criminal law class.   Yet, having to read the words out loud in this context was very hard. It was all I could do to try to read the words without crying.   I was reminded that reading the words in my head is not the same as saying the words in ways which required my lungs to take breath, my vocal chords to do the work of speaking the sentence in time. It takes much longer to say the words out loud, than it does for my eyes to take in the meaning. Having to say it out loud is not the same as knowing it. Or as hearing it. I was reminded that the speaking of words makes them real, ‘in the body.’

I was also reminded that I have a great deal of personal discomfort with role-playing exercises. I am perfectly happy watching others do them, but I don’t have a strong desire to be a participant. Indeed, knowing that I might have to participate in something will often send me quite a few rows back in a classroom. I am much more comfortable in my head than in my body. I prefer talking about things to doing things. I am always aware of discomfort in my body when I am asked to perform in many of these contexts. I experienced some of this in doing the exercise, but in ways that involve productive discomfort.

As one example, the exercise opened with the instruction that we walk around on the blankets saying hello, greeting each other.   That activity, itself, often takes me out of my comfort zone. I don’t enjoy parts of classes where we are supposed to walk around and introduce ourselves. For one thing, I am often uncomfortable shaking people’s hands: with how hard to shake, how soft to shake, are their hands arthritic, do I need to be careful how hard I squeeze, are my hand clammy or sweaty, will they want to shake my hand, will it be gross for them to shake my hand, is my hand too rough, how long should I smile, should I get eye-contact. These kinds of questions are running through my head in those exercises, thinking about my own comfort and also about the community of others of my loved ones who really hate these kinds of exercises.

There is something staged and false about that intro that I can feel in my body in a particular way, so I don’t really enjoy it. As someone who does not come from and has not embodied the Catholic tradition, I have also felt that way at the end of the Catholic mass where people turn to each other and say, peace be with you. Every time I am in one of those moments, I find myself thinking of my mother-in-law, who told me that she found that the most powerful part of the whole mass. For her, those moments of connection were powerful.

And so while I find them uncomfortable, I appreciate that they may be operating differently for others. The point is just that the exercise pushed me immediately into a space in which my body’s own discomfort was mobilized. In taking that first step and literally stepping onto the blankets, I was trying not to let my nervous giggle surface, walking around, shaking hands with people I did not know, wondering if I was operating appropriately or not. For me, this discomfort was productive – my participation was largely an information-gathering exercise to inform whether I could bring back and use this exercise in the places where I worked and lived. So that was good for me to know and helped temper the discomfort.

I found myself wondering if the exercise would have been different with trained actors reading the main roles.   I also wondered if that would lead me to feel more engaged, or to experience greater distance. It certainly let me think about the real pragmatic questions about how much of the work is in the script of the exercise itself and how much is in the power-of-performance dimensions of the script. There was a debrief following the exercise. I did find that the conversation after the exercise was as at least as interesting as the exercise itself.

I came away from this first exercise with some valuable insights and with a curiosity and desire to participate a second time.

Click to continue to Blanket Exercise – Part 2


Caravaggio and “The Time of Things”

Caravaggio-Quad-PosterThis May, our family had two delicious engagements with the world of art.   First, we watched the movie, “Caravaggio: The Sole and the Blood.”   Then, we went down to the Legacy Art Gallery to see “The Times of Things”, a curation of works by five Indigenous women artists.   I have been reflecting on the unexpected connections, disruptions and and resonance between the two shows. In this post, I will reflect on the former, and then (hopefully) get back to the later in a followup post.

In the middle of the week, I headed off to our local cinema to see “Caravaggio, the Soul and the Blood”, a movie from the Art Beats Series.  Click here for a link to the trailer.  I took my mother, my 17 year old and his fencing friend along to the show. There were some interesting aspects to this encounter with art. Frequently the art shows give the viewer an opportunity to see the work up close. They often feel like an extended gallery tour, one that lets you get close enough to really see the detail and the hand of the painter in the brush strokes. This film integrated something closer to modern dance or a performance piece in drawing the audience into an interaction with the Caravaggio’s paintings and with his life.

Dancer Marigliano Emanuele in the film

The piece opens in what seems to be a performance space. The images moving back and forth between. A man shirtless, bare feet, a closely shaved beard with a bit of length. His hair was short. He had a lean dancer’s body and he was sitting on a bed which was only a mattress and a metal frame in an empty cavernous interior space. We heard the voice of someone speaking about freedom and liberty and the desperation of being deprived of liberty. The text felt like a letter written from a friend or a page from a journal. The visual imagery flipped from a close up on a man to a butterfly trapped in a globe and a bird in a cage. With slow deliberation the man begins wrapping plastic wrap, around his neck, up over his nose and then around his eyes and forehold. We were seeing an extreme close up. The butterfly and the bird images worked in conjunction with the performance to produce a powerful sense of claustrophobia and suffocation in the viewer, amplifying the power of the words speaking to the desperation of the speaker’s desire for liberty. Or release.  Later in the film, there is a similar feeling evoked as we have an extended scene with the same man, his face in the water.

2855The setting of the bed and mattress in the space position us in a strange time-space juncture. For me, the room felt medieval or renaissance. Stone walls, stone floors, space reminiscent of the 16th century or the time in which Caravaggio lived. The bed and mattress felt contemporary. The institutionalized look and feel of a bed one would expect in a residential school, a war time hospital or a prison. This choice of setting creates a suture between the 16th and 21st centuries, drawing us into an interaction with these words and the art that now feels intimate and almost too close.

Through out the film we then follow the life of Caravaggio, of not only the question of his art, but also the question of his life. We consider his use of light and dark, foreground and background, how he sought to capture action in stillness. Darkness in the light, and light in the dark.

0c6430eb4f8c122c9c8f1119494f5883The cinematic choices invite us to think about traces and the marks we leave behind, showing us not only his paintings, but also the 16th century manuscripts which carry the lines of ink tracing out his name, documenting his birth, and the many legal actions against him for assault, the context of debt and for his killing of a man. There is something powerful in being taken to the shelves of an archive to see rows and rows of books. To see the gloved hands of an archivist opening a book for us to see the lines of ink, pages themselves akin to a piece of art to be read. I don’t read Italian. And my children can’t read cursive. But the impact of the visual was no less for all of that. On the pages one could see the evidence of a hand in movement, not the hand of the artist, but the hand of a scribe — a scribe capturing in a line of ink traces of Caravaggio’s passing through life.

The film doubled this impact by interjecting scenes with our dancer placing paint, placing, flinging, spilling paint against a canvas, reminding us of the physicality involved in placing paint and colour against a canvas.  The film also doubled what we were being taught about Caravaggio’s style of foregrounding light in darkness, by doing the same thing cinematically with the dancer’s body.  This also had the impact of making me think about contemporary painters. Or of seeing Caravaggio’s creative impulses as current. Again, the line between the past and present was blurred between these choices.

We had intense conversations on the way home. How come, my 17 year old asked, artists always seem to have such painful lives. Can you be an artist without suffering? We talked about how the paintings became so much more interesting against the background of the story. We talked about the impact of the plague on people’s lives. About child labour. About mercy and punishment. And about the conflict between good and evil, playing out in people’s lives.  The boys wanted to talk about the challenge of an artist seeking to share his vision in a world not yet ready to see that vision expressed.  We also talked about the relationship between religion, economy and society. For what or whom was Caravaggio producing these works?  It is impossible to think about Caravaggio’s art without acknowledging the context in which he worked, producing art to play a piece in religious space, within churches and cathedrals. Or for private wealthy collectors in contexts where the work would hang on a wall behind a curtain.  It also invited us to think about sexuality with canvases filled with so many beautiful naked boys. It is always interesting talking with the boys about the place of religion and the body in the history of art and ideas. My undergraduate degree was in music and to study the history of music is to study the history of religion.  But my boys have grown up in a world where organized religion has had a more tenuous hold on them than it did in earlier times.  A film like this one does a great job of capturing the context of the time.   In short, the film led to a robust conversation about work and art and belief in contemporary times as we drove home.  What more could a parent want?

Caravaggio’s “David with the head of Goliath” – the background vanishing into darkness

I went to sleep that night thinking about Caravaggio’s erasure of all that which was background.  It reminded me of an earlier conversation with my mother when we had been trying to take photos of a scene in front of us. We had both noted with amusement, the way that the photographic representation, wile supposedly a truthful capture of what was in front of us, was not a faithful represention. The photo captured a number of overhead wires or obstructing branches. In our mind’s eye, we had inscribed a scene in which those disrupting elements simply vanished, leaving only the beauty of what we had found in front of us. So, we wondered, which images were more “real”?  These of course or the questions that preoccupy artists, but I was left thinking about the impact of this question in my own work and life.