The University of Ottawa Faculty of Law (located on unceded Algonquin territory) recently announced that Claudette Commanda will serve as its new Elder in Residence. This position aims to help further reconciliation and promote learning of Indigenous legal mechanisms and respect for traditional protocols. Claudette will offer knowledge to both students and staff, with a perspective that has historically been marginalized in Canada’s higher education institutions, especially with regards to the residential school system.
Claudette is Algonquin Anishnabe from Kitigan Zibi Anishnabeg, located near the Ottawa region. She is an alumna of the Faculty and has taught various courses at the University of Ottawa, including in the Faculties of Law and Education. Claudette has been active in her community, serving on the Kitigan Zibi band council three separate times. She has also volunteered her time to the Faculty’s events by speaking during the law school’s orientation, hosting talking circles and offered a welcome at a dinner with First Nations visiting Ottawa to appear at the Supreme Court.
Other law schools across Canada have also begun to establish Elders in Residence programs. Osgoode Hall law school at York recently announced it plans to bring in Elders to strengthen ties with the Indigenous community. Similarly, the University of Toronto law school launched its Elder in Residence program in 2013. These positions provide guidance to both students and faculty at the schools, as well as strengthen the connection between the local Indigenous community and the University. The College of Law at the University of Saskatchewan has similarly appointed Métis author, playwright, filmmaker, and Elder Maria Campbell its cultural advisor.
The Elder in Residence at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law will help the increasing number of Indigenous students attending law school. Claudette knows the Faculty as a former student as well as a professor, and will have a lot of practical knowledge to share. She is also a traditional knowledge keeper; students will be able to approach her for guidance during their studies.
Canada has committed to implementing both the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Calls to Action from the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report. Claudette’s new role is in keeping with Article 11 of UNDRIP which states, “Indigenous peoples have the right to practice and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs.” Having an Elder available to staff and students benefits both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities at the faculty, as it encourages traditional knowledge learning, dialogue, and mutual understanding in an environment of respect. Claudette’s appointment also reflects The Truth and Reconciliation Call to Action requiring that Canadian “lawyers receive appropriate cultural competency training.” Law students will have the opportunity to learn from an Algonquin Elder as a way to aid in this cross-cultural training and offer another important lens through which to study law.
The Elder in Residence program serves as a meaningful step towards reconciliation in the law school context. The addition of Claudette Commanda to the Faculty will increase its knowledge of Indigenous legal mechanisms , while providing guidance and support to the University of Ottawa’s growing Indigenous law student body.