Image: “Laptop,” Painting by Val Napoleon


While much of the ILRU’s learning starts with paper (such as published stories, academic articles, background research), the heart of our research is the work we do with – and within – communities. By early March, 2020 had already seen us travel to attend workshops, focus groups, or planning meetings with Anishinaabek, Dene/Cree/Kaska, Dunne-za/Saulteau, Gitxsan, syilx, NłeɁképmx, Secwépemc, Tsilhqot’in, and Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in partners, with a full calendar of plans for another busy year.

As no one needs to be told, of course, in the middle of that month, these plans made a quick exit out the nearest window. But the hard work of revitalizing and re-articulating Indigenous law – for ILRU and for all the partners we work with – could not and has not stopped. Like so many, our team hauled infrastructure home, repurposed bedrooms and broom closets, and met in Skype, Bluejeans, Google Hangouts, Zoom rooms to re-imagine our work in these altered realities. We halted all travel until further notice, and turned back to our community partners to re-imagine our project plans and outcomes. Amidst all of the upheaval, our project partners provided invaluable connection, guidance, and commitment to the unprecedented work of upholding community-centred research as we, together, re-imagined how to proceed without in-person visits by the ILRU team.

The last six months have been, at turns, terrifying, tiring, and terrific. In retrospect, it has been a very generative time, enabling us to think creatively about how to enable broader engagement with Indigenous laws in our new world. Here are just a few of the rebooted bits we’ve been up to.


Creative Community Engagement

Getting creative with nurturing community connections, ILRU Researcher Sarah Jackson learned about blogging from the ground up, setting up WordPress sites for three projects across the country, including:

Ndinawe Stories for the Kipimoojikewin: (“the things we carry with us”): How Anishinaabe Law Upholds Community Governance project in Nogojiwanong (Peterborough, Ontario). Our community partner for this project is Niijkiwendidaa Anishnaabekwag Services Circle (NASC).

Nicola Water Governance for the NłeɁképmx and Syilx Laws of Water and Watershed Governance project, based out of the Nicola region surrounding Merritt, British Columbia. Our community partners for this project are five Nicola nations: Upper Nicola, Lower Nicola, Coldwater, Nooaitch, and Shackan.

Learning and Connecting with Stories for the GroundWork project located in Treaty 8 territory in northeastern British Columbia. Our partners for this project are Treat 8 Tribal Association members Fort Nelson First Nation, Halfway River First Nation, West Moberly First Nations, and Saulteau First Nations.

This led to interesting discussions around the ethics of online engagement, and the most effective ways to engage with people and leave a record. As Rebecca Johnson noted, blogs leave a record, while Facebook is immediate but posts quickly fade away. We started work on filling our blogs with a reading theatre, recorded tellings of stories, and choose your own adventures. We coupled videos from before COVID times, with Zoom recordings of Frequently Asked Questions, with community coordinators diving into the creative frenzy.

Focus groups and validation session

Screenshot from a zoom session with Dave Belleau and Carolyn Belleau in Dave’s backyard in Esket (Alkali Lake, BC)

This new imagining of online community engagement extended to formal participant research. As projects such as our NłeɁképmx and Syilx Laws of Water and Watershed Governance project headed into the focus group phase of research (again, usually an in-person process), we had to re-vision ways of hosting conversations and knowledge-gathering within community that could be safe while still allowing our community participants to feel heard and included. Thanks to the tenacity of Eva Tom, this project’s Indigenous Research Liaison, we regrouped and began meeting with knowledge holders over Zoom, including Nłeʔkepmxc and Syilx language-speakers, leadership, and elders. These online focus groups filled our days with deep thinking and slow transcribing, which included the immense contributions of our four incredible summer law students. Together, we learned to do the work of supporting the revitalization of Indigenous law in new ways, adjusting our expectations for an uncertain and rapidly changing world, while finding solace in stories and ways of thinking that go back hundreds of generations.

Our work on the validation of works in progress continued through the period through zoom as well. We had the great fortune of hiring Carolyn Belleau, a JD/JID student at UVic, who supported validation sessions in her home community of Esk’etemc, in Secwépemc Territory, from her father, Dave Belleau’s back yard. We also validated conversations held in Tsilhqot’in territory over the phone. Although the lack of proximity impacted some of the timing and length of sessions, communicating over zoom and the phone also enabled us to be more flexible with our own timing, so we could better work around our community members’ schedules and availability. We all reflected that once travel can resume, we might even continue to hold some validation and focus group sessions over zoom where it was appropriate and efficient to do so.

Designing and delivering LAW 388: Indigenous Law: Research, Method, and Practice

Amidst the shifts in our practice resulting from COVID, our approaches to training and education also had to be re-imagined. This year, for the first time, ILRU was contracted by the University of Victoria Faculty of Law to deliver the LAW 388 Indigenous Law: Research, Method and Practice course in May 2020. By the end of March, however, it was clear this, too, would have to move into an online format. Research Director, Jessica Asch, and Senior Researcher, Tara Williamson, re-organized and re-imagined the course to create an online version and, along side the entire ILRU team (notably, Simon Owen, Lindsay Borrows, Rebecca Johnson and Val Napoleon) and with the help of a number of ILRU affiliates who came in for guest panels and visits, delivered it to an extraordinary class made up of community partners, ILRU students, legal professionals, and JD, JD/JID, and graduate students. Here’s a taste from the class, involving a conversation about legal theory (specifically Hart and Fuller) amongst Val, Rebecca, Tara and Jessica (see video). Teaching the course sparked ideas about how we might develop and deliver an online workshop for people interested in learning more about Indigenous legal methodologies. Stay tuned for announcements on that front.

Four amazing students!

A core part of our mandate is to support students who want to learn how to engage in the work that ILRU does. Right before COVID struck, we had hired four amazing students from the JD/JID program the University of Victoria: Carolyn Belleau, Brendan Noyes, Tania Talebzadeh-Takiyeh, and Andrea Vogel. With a research staff of five, this would nearly double the team for the summer. Although we didn’t know what was entirely in store for us for the summer, we all worked hard, together as a team, to create supportive orientation and work plans for the four while they worked with us. We also learned together what it meant to be “zoomed out” and how to support one another in times of flux and uncertainty. Their enthusiasm and dedication to our work inspired us through the summer, and they all left a terrific mark on the projects they were involved in. They are undoubtedly all going to be leaders in the field for years to come.

See: ILRU Summer Students’ Reflections.

Publications and Media

The grounding of ILRU staff had one undeniable benefit. No travel meant that the team could focus down on some of the project work set before us. In addition to finalizing a new graphic novel and teaching guide on Cowichan Water law, stay tuned for publications on Tsilhqoti’n Water Law, Secwepemc Citizenship law, Coast Salish Child Welfare and Nurturance Law, a governance toolkit, and a revised Gender Inside Indigenous Law Toolkit. In the New Year, we anticipate adding a few more reports to the publications list, as well as a few new projects.

Finally, the team was also actively out there in the community talking about the work. Val Napoleon and Jessica Asch were interviewed by Justin Douglas for the Just in Canada: Canada’s Social Change-Makers series on YouTube. Rebecca Johnson and Jessica Asch held an online dialogue with the team at Qwelmínte Secwepemc on Indigenous Law & Knowledge Retention, and Val Napoleon spoke with Ryan McMahon in the short film Home on Native Land.

ILRU summer student Carolyn Belleau at Mystic Beach (photo: Brooke Edmonds)


Although this time has been odd, and at times frightening, overall, it has also enabled much needed space for us to think creatively about how it is that we do our work. Our conversations with community partners about more interactive, online resources and platforms have not just been inspiring, but have undoubtedly increased the reach and potentially accessibility of the work we do together. Not travelling has meant asking ourselves what it means to visit in these circumstances. We have learned that there are often more opportunities to visit as a result of our need to use zoom, as conversations are now easier to organize and schedule, if necessary. No in-person visits has alleviated the burden of hosting our researchers in community, has lowered some of our costs, and has mitigated some of the potential disruptions caused when visits need to be postponed. What we have lost in the experience of community embeddedness, in other words, we have gained in the ability to maintain more constant, and even more frequent, connections with individuals. There is so much value in this learning.