Indigenous law scholar John Borrows, who is internationally acclaimed for his publications, research and community activism, was recognized with an honorary doctor of laws degree from York University on June 22.
Borrows, who received his honorary degree during Osgoode Hall Law School’s spring convocation ceremony, has had a celebrated academic career at several eminent institutions. Currently, he holds a Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law at the University of Victoria Law School and the Nexen Chair in Indigenous Leadership at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.
An alumnus of Osgoode Hall Law School and former member of its faculty, Borrows spoke to graduands about the pivotal role Osgoode played in his career and the importance of advancing Indigenous law initiatives across the country.
“When I was a graduate student here I focused on how treaties used Indigenous law to create Canada’s first constitutions. In 1764, at Niagara, 2000 people representing 22 First Nations negotiated an agreement to share these lands in peace,” said Borrows. “Indigenous and British laws were placed side-by-side to guide our future actions. Drawing on older traditions to sustain and create new ways of living lies at the heart of our legal system.”
Borrows is a member of the Chippewa of the Nawash First Nation. Each year, he hosts a law camp for 50 Osgoode students, introducing them to Anishinaabek law. The camp uses a range of activities designed to immerse students in understanding Anishinaabek law and enlighten them to critical thinking.
“We tried to follow this insight when the Intensive Program in Aboriginal Lands, Resources & Governments began, during my time as a professor here over 20 years ago. I have enjoyed practicing these principles with the Osgoode community through the intervening years,” said Borrows. “Over 400 students have [since] graduated from the Intensive Program and four years ago Osgoode initiated the Anishinaabe Law Camp on my reserve. The camp is always a highlight of my year. This is merely one of many exciting Indigenous initiatives which passed through Faculty Council this year.”
Noting his excitement about these advances, Borrows spoke about how he wished he could talk with his late grandfather about the developments and the camp, noting that his grandfather would probably have something more to teach everyone involved. He drew on his grandfather’s teachings and passed the knowledge they contained to those assembled for convocation.
“Grandpa Josh was one of the smartest men I knew. He also had an eye for the absurd and could be purposely foolish. He was a true trickster,” said Borrows with a smile. “Like many of his generation Grandpa Josh was sexually abused by the minister on the reserve when he was a young boy. This made him sad and restless and led to his fight with alcoholism … racism and oppression were never far from his door during his 77 years on earth. He did not have the luxury of living up to his considerable intelligence. People say he was exceptionally eloquent, in both Ojibwe and English. The world came alive under his tongue and the trees and sky would speak whenever he waxed philosophical.”
He spoke about his grandfather’s desire to expand his knowledge through reading of Kant, Nietzsche and Plato. “He loved the ancient Greeks. I can still remember him repeating Socrates’ words to me as a young teenager: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ In my first year of university, taking my Introduction to Philosophy class, I heard the professor repeat a phrase I thought my grandpa had coined. I didn’t know he was quoting John Stuart Mill as we visited.
“Grandpa wanted us to walk in other’s moccasins by considering different points of view. So, I found myself reading Socrates and Plato myself, as a 13-year-old, because of his influence. I didn’t understand much of what I read, and still don’t, but I felt closer to him when I did this,” said Borrows.
His grandfather repeatedly Borrows and his siblings to “get all the education that you can; you can always carry it with you and no one can steal it from you.” The advice stuck with Borrows, who kept his counsel to read, be still, and listen to other people’s points of view close to his heart. “This [advice] was spoken by a man who travelled the continent. He knew too much about stealing. He was robbed of his innocence. His relatives were repeatedly whisked away to residential school. Our traditional lands were in other people’s hands due to the failure to honour our treaties – agreements ratified by his grandfather’s own hand. We were fleeced: we could barely take the deer, bear, geese, ducks, fish, berries and other resources which sustained us for generations because the law prevented us from accessing what was rightly ours under these agreements.”
Despite these injustices, Borrow’s grandfather urged him to learn about Immanuel Kant. Understand Descartes, read Rousseau, master John Maynard Keynes’s work. “I was left with the distinct impression that I should study, study, study, and never stop studying and talking with others about what I learned,” said Borrows. “He persuaded me that few things were more important than honestly engaging with others through their ideas. He spoke of Wiindigook, Memengwesiiyak, and Nanaboozhoo, as he explored our own literary canon. He also told crazy stories about his own adventures. He marveled at the geology, biology and physics of the world. But it was the study of philosophy, broadly construed, that he stressed most strongly, at least to me. I treasure his focus, and the expectation that we should not sit comfortably with what we think we know.”
There is always room for further discussion, correction and revision. Wisdom lives in nuance, said Borrows. “I hope your time at Osgoode has taught you the same thing. Be cautious of single stories. Continue to learn from peoples, laws and cultures which are not your own. It’s what was promised when we made treaties. These ways must be tried. I look forward to continuing to learn with you.”
The author of seven books and more than 60 papers, Borrows’ research has shaped the recommendations of both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. He is a Fellow of the Trudeau Foundation, a recipient of an Aboriginal Achievement Award in Law and Justice, a Fellow of the Academy of Arts, Humanities and Sciences of Canada, and a recipient of the Killam Prize in Social Sciences by the Canada Council for the Arts.