John Borrows, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law at UVic, has been appointed as an Officer of the Order of Canada for his scholarly work on Indigenous rights and legal traditions. He has been the recipient of previous awards and honours including the 2020 Governor General’s Innovation Award and the 2017 Killam prize in Social Sciences.
Borrows has studied and taught law around the world. His research and writing on Indigenous legal systems has helped shape and advance the relationships between Indigenous peoples and governments in Canada, and around the world. Borrows cofounded the Common Law (JD) and Indigenous Legal Orders (JID) joint degree program at UVic, the first cohort of which is now in its third year of the four-year program.
Borrows shares his reflections on this honour with Douglas.
What does receiving this honour mean to you?
I feel like it’s a reflection of all the support I have received from others through the years. We never accomplish anything on our own, and I feel this deeply. I am grateful for my family, community and colleagues because we are doing this work together.
What does it mean to the advancement of Indigenous law?
I hope this award helps people see the value of Indigenous peoples’ law in a contemporary light. Indigenous law consists of the standards, principles, processes, measures, criteria, benchmarks, traditions, authorities and precedents Indigenous peoples use to regulate their affairs and resolve disputes. It allows people within communities to both agree and disagree with one another, challenging the idea that might makes right.
Like many of our treaties with the Crown, Indigenous laws are designed to create an atmosphere of peace, order and respect. I hope a few more people consider their potential as a result of being appointed as an Officer of the Order of Canada.
How far has your work with indigenous law come, and how far do you hope it will go?
Indigenous peoples have struggled to have their law-making power be recognized through most of Canada’s history. Laws which still apply, like the Indian Act, are designed to minimize Indigenous decision-making and dispute resolution. Fortunately, Indigenous peoples still cling to the hope that they can take responsibility for their own lives and contribute to the common good.
In my 28 career I have seen these hopes grow. I have also seen practical, on-the-ground changes, where these laws have made a positive difference. I hope I live to see the day when Indigenous law is formally considered to be the law of this land and can benefit everyone in this country.
Have there been other moments in your career that marked a shift in awareness or recognition of your journey?
Awareness often comes unbidden, in quiet moments. The most important instances have been at home on my reserve, with elders, community members and law students, discussing and working with Indigenous law. On Georgian Bay’s shores, alongside our escarpments, or deep in our forests you can experience the peace these laws can bring.
Learning about Indigenous law in this way builds mutual appreciation. Lessons embedded in our ancient stories, linguistic heritage, treaties, and contemporary bylaws are drawn together to address some of the most pressing questions we face. These are my favorite moments, when recognition and awareness occurs without fanfare or undue attention being drawn to what should be ordinary — finding ways to live together with respect.
How do you approach teaching and learning with your students?
My mother taught me to encourage other people. I hope that’s what my students feel from me — encouragement. I want to help my students meet their highest aspirations and thus I challenge them to be their best. I love learning from my students. They are so bright and engaged. They inspire me and I do what I do because of their creativity, kindness and hard work.