Osgoode’s Aboriginal Intensive Program is making a difference


Above: Twelve students enrolled in Osgoode’s Aboriginal Intensive Program are pictured here with the program’s director, Osgoode Professor Shin Imai (back row, fourth from the left), and visiting Maori Professor Craig Coxhead  (next to Imai) from the University of Waikato in New Zealand

Back in the summer of 1990, Susan Hare (LLB ’93) and several other Osgoode students became concerned about a showdown taking place in the small Quebec town of Oka between Aboriginal Canadian protesters, the Quebec police and eventually, the Canadian army. The Osgoode students decided to go to Montreal to show their support for the native demonstrators. When the students returned to Osgoode, they were still very upset. They held a big rally in Toronto to draw attention to the Oka crisis, and demanded to know what Osgoode was going to do to help aboriginal people.

“The law school rose to the challenge. They were receptive to us,” said Hare, recalling how the students came up with a plan calling for a First Nations professor, more aboriginal students, a deeper First Nations perspective in the programs at the law school, and the development of an Aboriginal Intensive Program.

Hare – the first student to enroll in Osgoode’s Intensive Program in Aboriginal Lands, Resources and Government and now a lawyer in private practice in M’Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island – returned to Osgoode Hall Law School on Jan.  20 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the program with current and former students and professors. Since its inception, a total of about 100 students have graduated from the program.

Fourteen students, including five from other law schools, are enrolled in this year’s program, which runs during the winter term only. Students spend five days a week for four weeks in classes then they are off on placements for about eight weeks. Placements this year include offices in Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Inuvik, New Zealand, the United States and Costa Rica.

“I think that this is currently the best program in North America for encouraging knowledge of indigenous legal issues,” said University of Victoria professor and aboriginal-law expert John Borrows (left), who was on hand for the anniversary celebration along with Craig Coxhead, a visiting Maori professor from the University of Waikato in New Zealand. “It brings together the academic with the practical in a way that’s sophisticated and makes a difference to communities and makes a difference in the lives of students who participate in it.”

Borrows was one of the first teachers in the program, which began not only because of the efforts of the group of aboriginal students led by Hare but also because of the support of then Osgoode Dean Jim MacPherson (now a judge with the Ontario Court of Appeal) and former Osgoode Professor Alan Grant. In addition, Osgoode Professor Marilyn Pilkington, who succeeded MacPherson as dean of the law school, played a key role in overseeing the establishment of the program as a formal clinical program in the law school.

Right: From left, Susan Hare (LLB ’93), Osgoode Professor Shin Imai, director of the Law School’s Intensive Program in Aboriginal Lands, Resources and Governments; and Osgoode Professor and former Dean Marilyn Pilkington, who helped establish the clinical program

“It is really one of the unique things that Osgoode does that isn’t done anywhere else in the world,” said Pilkington who, along with Hare, received a certificate in appreciation of her role in founding the program. Pilkington said the program owes its success in part to the fact that it is taught by leading scholars in the field, and she cited Osgoode Professors Brian Slattery and Kent McNeil as well as former Osgoode Professor Gordon Christie as examples. She also commended Kevin Bell, who taught the course in 1998, for his “tremendous contribution” and Osgoode Professor and current program director Shin Imai for being “the constant thread in the program.”

Imai says the program, which received generous financial support from the late Milton Harris, teaches a community lawyering approach, which encourages collaboration, cooperation and sensitivity to community issues. He credits this approach for creating a “wonderful dynamic” among the students. “This dynamic is important,” said Imai, “because we hope to produce lawyers who can make a difference in the way that Canada approaches aboriginal issues.”

The next important aboriginal event hosted by Osgoode and supported by the Department of Justice Canada, the Law Foundation of Ontario and the Osgoode Indigenous Students’ Association will be the Kawaskimhon 2006 National Aboriginal Rights Moot from March 2 to 4.