“Justice is a useful frame, and it's not always deployed in the most useful way.”
On February 11, 2022, Professor Val Napoleon of the University of Victoria Faculty of Law presented the 23rd annual John Ll. J. Edwards Memorial Lecture.
Prisms of Justice: Indigenous Law Perspectives by Professor Val Napoleon investigated the multiple conceptions of justice as societies from all corners of the world demand it. Professor Napoleon tackled this exploration in three parts.
The first part looked at the different demands and expectations made in the name of justice. Justice, Professor Napoleon described, “means different things. They are often contradictory, and they cross every political stripe.” Looking at examples of current demands for justice, they often go from one spectrum to another. The use of shared evidence or shared understandings help conceptualize the meaning of justice and the associated freedoms. We must “first understand our own limitations: what don’t we know?”
Secondly, Professor Napoleon discussed Indigenous legal orders and laws and how these intersected with conceptions of justice. For Indigenous communities, the meaning of justice may vary. More predominantly, however, justice was seen as the state's shortcomings towards them, rather than the dominant view of punishment and conformity. “Law is not something that you arrive at that it provides answers. It’s something that grows out of people, solving problems, living their lives, and working collaboratively towards the aspirations that people share.”
Lastly, Professor Napoleon invited everyone to explore how justice and law work in non-state societies. “What is the understanding of justice, and the historic relationships Indigenous communities have with justice and law?” she asked. The importance of this conversation was to “think about citizenries and for Indigenous peoples, rebuilding our understanding of law founded on a different kind of conception of the person and the citizen.”
To bring the lecture to a close, Professor Napoleon emphasized the need for and the importance of thinking critically about how Indigenous laws interacted – and continue to interact – with the community and keeping up the conversations that may follow.
Val Napoleon is one of Canada’s most influential Indigenous legal scholars. She is the Director of the Indigenous law degree program at the University of Victoria and the Indigenous Law Research Unit. Professor Napoleon also holds the Law Foundation Chair of Indigenous Justice and Governance and has been named a Canadian Indigenous Bar Association People’s Counsel—a rare distinction awarded to a First Nations, Inuit, or Metis lawyer for “outstanding achievements in the practice of law" — and was inducted into the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars in 2017. In 2021 she received a national Indspire Award and an honorary Doctorate of Laws from UNBC.
The annual Edwards Memorial lecture is delivered in honour of the Centre’s founder, Professor John Ll. J. Edwards. This year’s lecture was presented by the Centre for Criminology & Sociolegal Studies and co-sponsored by the Centre for Indigenous Studies and Woodsworth College, University of Toronto.
Watch the full lecture here:
We thank everyone who tuned in to the event livestream, which reached an incredible 300+ viewers! We look forward to delivering the 24th annual Edwards Memorial Lecture in the new academic year. Stay tuned for more information.