Image: Jessica Asch (Research Director) and Tara Williamson (Senior Researcher), your eager instructors

Written by Jessica Asch and Tara Williamson 


This summer, for the first time, the University of Victoria Faculty of Law contracted the ILRU to deliver the LAW 388A Indigenous Law: Research, Method and Practice intensive course – a cornerstone of UVic’s Indigenous Law programming. This five-week intensive course is meant to be an experiential workshop, engaging students from law and grad programs, as well as community members and professionals, on heady questions surrounding the nature of law, and the ways in which people can start developing skills to engage with Indigenous laws. The basis of this course is the workshop that ILRU delivers in communities at the outset of our collaborative partnerships on Indigenous law revitalization.

When COVID-19 hit, the daunting task of transforming a course – based on experiential, collaborative, community-focused learning – for online delivery was not lost on course Instructors, Jessica Asch and Tara Williamson. But, like so many other people all over the world, we acclimatized to the virtual world and found space for creativity: some things that first looked like obstacles turned into incredible opportunities to re-think and re-imagine the course entirely.

Once we decided to jump into the unknown depth of the deep end, we cobbled together our workspaces and worked together to plan out the course. Jess cleaned out her suits and pushed a desk into her bedroom closet. Tara set up her living room as a make-shift office. We started by talking through some of the big questions: How were we going to build community? How were we going to do group exercises? How were we going to encourage people to step away from their screens? How were we going to make class accessible, inclusive and supportive? We then thought through and planned out the challenges of online delivery. We were not alone in this process; our discussions drew in the larger ILRU team, the law school, and colleagues from West Coast Environmental Law. And then the ideas began to flow.

Re-imagining Law 388A

Top (L-R): Dave Belleau, Carolyn Belleau, John Borrows; bottom (L-R): Darcy Lindberg, Sarah Morales, Leanne Simpson, Myrna McCallum

Our first substantial change was to modularize the course, and deliver it over five weeks rather than the usual four. We already had two months’ experience working remotely in a collaborative environment with many, many meetings and community engagement. We concluded it would simply be too much screen time for everyone in the class, and that adding an additional week would provide us with more time to build relationships with the students. In addition, we knew we wanted to blend more of the community work into this iteration of the course, and the thought of only four weeks for all of this information seemed too onerous for online delivery.

The second innovation was to regularize the weeks as much as possible. We had two-hour classes on Mondays and Wednesdays, and a three-hour block on Fridays. As this is too much time for synchronous class time, we pre-recorded and uploaded lectures for viewing by Mondays (usually), but scheduled a shorter class time to talk about the big ideas and check in with the class. Wednesdays generally became our observational labs with no required in-class participation (the few times we required attendance were lessons in providing uniformity for students in an online/pandemic world). These classes included either pre-recorded or live guest lectures or demonstrations of different aspects of our work by the team. Without a doubt, these were the most exciting classes for the students (and us!) and provided an incredible opportunity to both innovate the course and bring in diverse voices who we might not have been able to participate but for online delivery.

Our all-star guest line up included recorded conversations between different members of the ILRU team with Dave and Carolyn Belleau about Secwépemc law; Darcy Lindberg, Sarah Morales and John Borrows about the ways in which they engage with Indigenous law; and Leanne Simpson on ground-truthing our work. John and Darcy supported the class with an in-person follow up to their inspiring conversation with us and Myrna McCallum, the Trauma-Informed Lawyer, blew us away with a two-hour session on trauma-informed practice and its necessary place in the practice of law. The ILRU team also leant their experience and knowledge to Wednesday sessions, including recorded conversations with Val Napoleon and Rebecca Johnson on the role of theory and gender in our work, and demonstrations about or around our work including Jess, Tara, Simon Owen, Lindsay Borrows, Sarah Jackson, Rebecca, and our four amazing summer students Carolyn Belleau, Brendan Noyes, Tania Talebzadeh and Andrea Vogel. Finally, Val gave a riveting in-person performance of her story “An Imaginary for Our Sisters: Spirits and Indigenous Law” to the class. We felt like the luckiest instructors in the world, and the student feedback was just as enthusiastic.

As you’d expect, by the time we got to Friday, we were exhausted. Nevertheless, Fridays were actually our biggest days – the experiential lab days where students were able to apply their learning and work on Indigenous law methods in small groups. Here, we leaned heavily on Simon and Lindsay, and at times Rebecca, to facilitate small group work alongside Tara and Jess to enable us to have break out groups of 6-8 students. We also relied on the flexible and brilliant summer students to be our scribes, our readers and our material-put-togetherers both in and outside of class. Behind the scenes was our coordinator, Brooke Edmonds helping everyone do all of the things. If nothing else, this course was an exercise in teamwork and community support – it would not have happened if it weren’t for the dedication of so many people.

Those First Questions

How do we build community in the online world?

Image: ILRU Team (Jessica Asch, Tara Williamson, Brendan Noyes, Carolyn Belleau, Simon Owen, Sarah Jackson, Brooke Edmonds and Rebecca Johnson) recording a zoom lecture with community partner Dave Belleau

We agree that the single most important piece of the summer was to not ignore the outside world or pretend that it was business-as-usual. It was enough that we were all just trying to get by in a pandemic. And, then came the other pandemics: systemic violence and murders of Indigenous and black people by state forces; climate catastrophe; deepening realities of fascism. A lot was happening in the world and we made space for it by naming it and connecting it to the work we do. Our practice at ILRU is about addressing the foundations of our understandings about society and law and re-imaging a world that takes seriously engagement with Indigenous legal traditions as part of its rebuilding. We found that acknowledging these realities didn’t take much, and didn’t take long, but was useful to help people ease into our time together. We asked a lot of our students, but we also asked them to take care of themselves. If that meant keeping their camera off, or talking less sometimes, they needed to know that was okay.

We also found that the community built itself. We allowed students to chat (to everyone) during class. We found quickly that although we had to monitor the chat, the students largely answered each other on some of the more interrupt-y questions about page numbers, spellings, or story names. They also helped each other and us immensely at the beginning of Zoomiversity times with technical questions about how to use the application. Later on, the students found ways to provide immediate feedback to us in the chat that enabled us to take up their questions or confusion without derailing conversations. In one instance, a student used the chat to ask us to reframe a question that included language of a “vulnerable person” to “a person who experiences conditions of vulnerability” – a most welcome intervention – which we were able to weave into the class discussion with thumbs up from the rest of the class for this change. In short, what we found was that our presence as the “teachers” of the class in a little box on a screen did very interesting work at dismantling the appearance of hierarchy in the class. This helped us negotiate student interventions in a different way, highlighting their right to co-create the space and the learning happening in the room, which created a new type of intimate community-based experience.

How did we encourage people to leave the room and step away from their screens?

We can thank our friends at West Coast Environmental Law, who facilitated a conversation about teaching in the online world, for the suggestion of uploading our lectures and observations in both audio and visual formats. Doing so encouraged us to think through how we were presenting, and encouraged students to listen to lectures while on a walk or sitting by the water or in any way that wasn’t just sitting at a computer. We asked Rebecca and Val to tell a story that would be more-or-less the length of the hike up and down PKOLS for those in Victoria who wanted to climb and listen, too.

How were we going to make class accessible, inclusive and supportive?

We heard from many students about how much they appreciated the thought and effort we put into to the design and delivery of the course. As we’ve already reflected, our ability to put in this much work was very much a team effort. This includes the pedagogical choice of co-teaching, which has always been a feature of this course. Co-teaching allowed us to model what we expected from each other in terms of respectful engagement and conversation in class. It allowed us to lean on each other on those “pandemic days” when one of us was having a harder time. It enabled us to clarify ideas or provide other examples for the students when necessary. It allowed us the opportunity to learn from each other (as we did from the students). In a class of non-Indigenous and Indigenous students, having professors who were also Indigenous and non-Indigenous enabled us to take on different work in the classroom and in the conversation about our practice. In the online classroom, it allowed us to plan how to be attentive to dynamics in the room in a different way. For example, when one of us wasn’t speaking to the class, we would use that time to scan for attendance, attentiveness and body/face language, as well as the chat for any important interventions or questions.

Overall, although it was a crazy proposition at the outset, imagining the course in an online format pressed us to consider some of the bigger questions of design and pedagogy in a helpful way. The online format enabled us to welcome a wider array of not just guests with tremendous knowledge to share, but also law and graduate students from across Canada, and community partners who otherwise may not have been able to enrol. Finally, we were left with a tremendous number of resources (i.e. videos, activities, written materials) for ILRU’s toolbox that are already proving helpful for other projects and broader community engagement. Stay tuned for more news on how we bring these resources to the broader public and to our new training sessions.