© 2017 ICCLAP

Cultural Competency for Legal Education by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was created as an independent commission in 2008 as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. This was the Canadian Government’s response to a class action by more than 86,000 Indian Residential School survivors across Canada whose experiences are similar to those of the Stolen Generations in Australia. In 2015 the TRC issued 94 ‘Calls to Action’ which were intended to ‘redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation’. With respect to the administration of justice for survivors of Indian Residential Schools, the TRC found that there were very few criminal prosecutions against abusers of IRS residents, and significant barriers to civil litigation claims by survivors.

In particular the TRC found that the criminal prosecution of abusers in residential schools and the subsequent civil lawsuits were a difficult experience for Survivors, stating that:

The courtroom experience was made worse by the fact that many lawyers did not have adequate cultural, historical, or psychological knowledge to deal with the painful memories that the Survivors were forced to reveal. The lack of sensitivity that lawyers often demonstrated in dealing with residential school survivors resulted, in some cases, in the survivors not receiving appropriate legal service. These experiences prove the need for lawyers to develop a greater understanding of Aboriginal history and culture as well as the multi-faceted legacy of residential schools.

Based on these findings the TRC initiated ‘Calls to Action’ to improve the administration of justice for survivors of Indian Residential Schools. These include:

  • Call 27 to the Federation of Law Societies of Canada ‘to ensure that lawyers receive appropriate cultural competency training’ (TRC 2015: 168)
  • Call 28 to all Law Schools is ‘to require all law students to take a course in Aboriginal people and the law, which includes the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, treaties and Aboriginal Rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal-Crown relations. This will require skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights and anti-racism’ (TRC 2015: 168).

Many Canadian law schools and law societies have publicly embraced these two Calls to Action and are now working on implementing these initiatives. The Canadian example sets a strong precedent for the adoption of cultural competency in legal education in settler colonial states. ICCLAP Project Leader, Marcelle Burns, has been invited to speak at the Association of Continuing Legal Education conference in Vancouver in August 2017 (via Skype). Marcelle will talk about ICCLAP and initiatives in Australia to incorporate Indigenous cultural competency in legal education. This will be a great opportunity to share information and learn about the Canadian experience in response to the TRC ‘Calls to Action’ on Indigenous cultural competency for lawyers and law students.

Source: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Honouring the Truth: Reconciling the Future: Summary Report of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015). The TRC ceased operations in December 2015, and the work of the TRC has now been transferred to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, University of Manitoba. All TRC reports are now available at http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/index.ph...

Acknowledgement of Country

We acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of country throughout Australia, and their continuing connection to land and waters. We pay our respects to elders, past, present and emerging. We acknowledge that these have always been places of knowledge, teaching and learning.


School of Law, University of New England

Marcelle Burns, Project Leader (02) 6773-2686

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Funding Acknowledgement

Support for this project has been provided by the Australian Government Department for Education and Training. The views expressed by this project do not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Government Department for Education and Training.