Celebrating National Indigenous Peoples Day

June 21 is National Indigenous Peoples Day, a day for all Canadians to recognize and celebrate the unique heritage, diverse cultures, and outstanding contributions of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples.

To celebrate this day, we're providing an exclusive excerpt from the latest book by author John Borrows, winner of the 2019 Canada Council Molson Prize. Law’s Indigenous Ethics examines the revitalization of Indigenous peoples’ relationship to their own laws and, in so doing, attempts to enrich Canadian constitutional law more generally. Organized around the seven Anishinaabe grandmother and grandfather teachings of love, truth, bravery, humility, wisdom, honesty, and respect, this book explores ethics in relation to Aboriginal issues including title, treaties, legal education, and residential schools.


Excerpt from Law's Indigenous Ethics

1. Zaagi’idiwin – Love
2. Debwewin – Truth
3. Zoongide’ewin – Bravery
4. Dabaadendizowin – Humility
5. Nibwaakaawin – Wisdom
6. Gwayakwaadiziwin – Honesty
7. Manaaji’idiwin – Respect

The following chapters examine these gifts, each in their turn. As noted, these are the Seven Grandmother/Grandfather Teachings of the Anishinaabe, as made popular by Elder Eddie Benton Benai. This work discusses how these principles can apply to Indigenous peoples’ relationship with the Canadian state and those of the broader world. In so doing, this book advances an ongoing research agenda that explores the relevance of Indigenous law in contemporary legal affairs.

The Seven Grandmother/Grandfather Teachings are found in constitutions, by-laws, teacher’s guides, school walls, books, blogs, posts, songs, stories, and other artist works across Anishinaabe-akiing (Anishinaabe territory). Reference to these teachings has greatly expanded through the last twenty-five years. I have been told that it is not really “traditional” to organize our laws in this manner; it has been said that they are “new” and therefore not really Anishinaabe. Some of these people believe that Indigenous authority can be rooted only in antiquity, thus rendering suspect any invention, interpretive reorganization, or expansion of Anishinaabe world views. Constitutional originalism has long been used to exclude or marginalize Indigenous peoples.

I have not been able to determine the origin or longevity of the Seven Teachings. Their present arrangement may be a recent phenomenon, though I have no evidence one way or another. Fortunately, it might be advantageous to my thesis if the contemporary organization of the Seven Grandmother/Grandfather Teachings was of a recent vintage. Their use, expansion, and development across Anishinaabe-akiing might demonstrate that Indigenous law is being made, created, and invented in the present day. I have long argued that it is not necessary that every law be old to be standard-setting for present-day Anishinaabe communities. Indigenous law can be a living and dynamic force if not tethered to what is regarded as being integral to aboriginal communities prior to European contact or sovereignty. The Seven Grandmother/ Grandfather Teachings could broaden our legal imagination if they are regarded as current expressions of Indigenous authority in the modern world, regardless of whether their origin is old or new.

As with my other books, this work examines Indigenous law through the lens of one specific group – the Anishinaabe. I consider Indigenous law from an Anishinaabe perspective because this is what I know best. I am Anishinaabe and a member of the Chippewas of the Nawash First Nation. I have worked with Anishinaabe law for over twenty-five years. My reserve is called Neyaashiinigmiing on the western shores of Georgian Bay, a four-hour drive north of Toronto. The Anishinaabe more generally live within the Great Lakes watershed, surrounding large parts of Lakes Superior, Huron, and Michigan. We also occupy farmlands and woodlands north of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. We likewise have reservations/reserves in the forests and prairies of northern Minnesota, North Dakota, and southern Saskatchewan. There are even isolated Anishinaabe communities as far west as Montana, Alberta, and British Columbia. It is a big group. Anishinaabe people form part of the largest Indigenous nation in the United States and Canada, rivalling in size the Navajo, Cherokee, Cree, and Lakota nations.

In taking this approach, I must stress that this book is not intended to be representative of all legal traditions in Canada, though I do hope it opens space for them to interact with Canadian law in their own unique ways. As I have tried to explain in my work, there are diverse viewpoints concerning law’s nature and scope within and beyond Indigenous legal orders. While I recognize the distinctiveness of each Indigenous legal regime, there is value in beginning our enquiry with a specific Indigenous lens. Ideas are presented from one group’s perspective in order to open  doors to alternative possibilities in Canadian law.

Thus I do not write about Anishinaabe legal principles because I regard them as superior in any way; they are just as helpful and misleading as any other legal tradition across the world. I write from a particular perspective because law must flow from identifiable contexts.  At the same time, I draw more general lessons from Anishinaabe law, because Indigenous peoples’ laws (including Anishinaabe laws) must be relevant in international, national, and local settings. Other Indigenous legal orders will be just as valuable, if not more so, in facilitating resurgence and reconciliation across the land and beyond. Indigenous law grows from a place, but it cannot always be contained by that place, at least in some of its manifestations. This is the case with every legal tradition, including those indigenous to Canada. Therefore, while I use Anishinaabe ideas in this work, they must be viewed as signalling what is possible when Indigenous law interacts with Canadian law more generally.

When analytical frames shift away from “Western” legal frames, this can help us to see law in new ways. As a result, in this book I apply Anishinaabe law – as much for what it can tell us about Western law – as for what it reveals about Anishinaabe reasoning. The constraints, biases, and preoccupations of the common law and civil law systems are somewhat diminished when relevance and justiciability do not rest on their terms. Thus, this is very much a book about “Western” law too. I have written from an Anishinaabe legal perspective to ask questions that may be less likely to occur in Canadian law without Indigenous input.

These are questions like, How is love relevant to regulation and dispute resolution – particularly when considering treaties? What is the role of relative truth in the law – especially when considering law’s so called foundational sources and force? Is bravery a constitutional value, and can it be applied in an Aboriginal rights context? Does humility have a place in helping us understand Aboriginal title’s relationship with private property? Can wisdom be specifically invoked to require more holistic approaches to learning that take us outside the classroom and onto the land? Can honesty assist us in acknowledging Canadian law’s syncretic nature – and can this affect how we teach law? Can respect be activated to inculcate mutual responsibilities in Indigenous-settler relations – especially when residential schools and other assimilatory pressures are at issue?

Each of the following chapters will examine these seven questions/gifts from an Anishinaabe legal perspective. Though my views of Anishinaabe law reflect the research and experience of one person (me), I have tried to analyse the tradition from many different angles. You should not regard my views as being representative of their field; many people will disagree with me or emphasize different parts of the tradition with varied intensities. This book exists as an exercise of “issue identification.” It can be considered an invitation to people who work with other legal traditions to compare their views with those expressed in this book. Perspicuous contrast and vocabularies of comparison have long motivated my Anishinaabe trickster-inflected methodologies. This book follows earlier work in this regard.

When identifying issues, I am careful not to be overly prescriptive in linking Anishinaabe laws to the themes of each chapter (love, truth, bravery, humility, wisdom, honesty, and respect). Again, I am not the authority in these matters; the practice of Anishinaabe law is a collective endeavour. I am merely offering one set of limited views on a field. Moreover, Anishinaabe legal tradition requires that I leave some space between Anishinaabe law and constitutional issues raised in each section. This might be frustrating for some readers who are looking for more specific connections between the Seven Grandmother/Grandfather laws and Canadian constitutional law. I believe these connections are strong and I have tried to weave them carefully throughout the text. Nevertheless, there are places where these connections may seem somewhat ambiguous. This methodology is nonetheless deployed because Anishinaabe approaches require readers to activate their own agency in answering the questions presented herein. It would be inappropriate at times for me to be more directive. This has been called precept ambiguity by scholars who observe Anishishaabe life. Nuance is often valued over highly specific delineations, as will be the case as issues are identified throughout this book.

Furthermore, some of the “gaps” between Anishinaabe and Canadian law in this text illustrate the distance that still needs to be crossed in Canadian constitutional law. It is not always Indigenous law that is ambiguous. Canadian law is itself a cultural system that does not
effectively relate to Indigenous legal approaches, and this also leads to ambiguity in how systems may be connected as they continue to develop. At the same time, I have worked to provide interpretive highlights through the text, and to identify connections and possibilities for readers to make use of the seven teachings in relation to the broader legal issues explored in each chapter.


To read the full introduction, please click here.

John Borrows is a world-renowned law professor at the University of Victoria. He's Anishinabe/Ojibway and a member of the Chippewa of the Nawash First Nation in Ontario, Canada. Dr. Borrows specializes in Indigenous legal rights and comparative constitutional law. He has written and spoken extensively on Indigenous legal rights and traditions, storytelling, treaties and land claims, and constitutional and environmental law. He is also widely recognized as an authority in the field of Indigenous law, and has received many honors and awards for his work with and for Indigenous peoples in many countries.