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A critical lens on legal reconciliation

July 15, 2019 — 

Dr. Jeremy Patzer credits his early interest in law, in part, to a duck. Near the family farm on the outskirts of the Lake Manitoba First Nation, Patzer [MA/08] and his cousin were approached by a game warden for hunting a duck two days out of season. That encounter marked a pivotal moment for Patzer, spurring a lifelong interest in Métis hunting rights. “It is something that had stuck with me for a handful of years until 2003, the first time the Supreme Court of Canada recognized that Métis rights could be and should be recognized under Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982,” recalls Patzer, who is Métis, Saulteaux and German.

While completing his master’s degree at the University of Manitoba and doctoral degree at Carleton University, Patzer dived into the topic even deeper, taking a critical lens to how the courts handle Indigenous rights, title and treaty rights, and critiquing their approach to resolving colonial dispossession.

“While my master’s looked specifically at Métis rights and Métis hunting rights, I opened it up wider for my dissertation, asking the larger questions around how the courts try to reconcile and resolve very controversial histories that come out of colonial dispossession,” he says.

When it came time to look for a teaching job, Patzer looked specifically for universities hiring in areas that specialize in Indigenous issues. And so, in 2016, he moved back to the Prairies after accepting a position as assistant professor in the U of M’s department of sociology and criminology.

“(Manitoba) is where I still have that farm with my family. I still exercise my Section 35 Indigenous rights to go hunting and fishing. I knew I wanted to stay (in Manitoba) if I could,” he says.

Outside the classroom, he continues to publish about Aboriginal law, which denotes the body of law in the Canadian legal system that deals with issues in traditional areas like treaty rights, Indigenous title and duty to consult, as well as issues surrounding Métis rights (see ‘An Important Distinction’ at bottom).

“Treaty rights come out of treaties that are signed…Indigenous Peoples can still claim before the courts and seek to have recognized rights that aren’t mentioned in treaties, which is what Métis [people] have to rely on,” he explains.

“Aboriginal title is largely an issue that pertains to Indigenous groups who didn’t sign a historical treaty of any sort, like going out to British Columbia and up to the North. The same areas where they would deal with land claims sometimes actually deal with Aboriginal title cases.”

Patzer has also focused his research on contemporary topics like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – which marked the 10th anniversary of its adoption in 2017 – and was recently published in The International Journal of Human Rights for his work on the topic.

“I look forward to furthering my involvement on Indigenous rights at an international level, particularly in the global North,” he says.

Indigenous scholar, Jeremy Patzer.

Indigenous scholar, Jeremy Patzer.

Most recently, Patzer’s research has focused on how the courts have handled controversies around Residential Schools and the nearly 20,000 Indigenous children taken from their families in the Sixties Scoop. His research aims to shift how similar court cases, settlement agreements and Indigenous rights issues are handled in the future.

“For me, broadly speaking, these are all historical grievances. These are infamies from our colonial past, very negative and harmful things that the courts – and the law in general – have difficulty trying to reconcile and resolve, even today,” he says.

“I look with a critical eye to see how the law handles that and what it is able to do –and not able to do – when it’s trying to resolve those historical controversies.”

Teaching that legal and political history to students – while relating it to contemporary issues in Canada – has been especially fulfilling for Patzer since he returned to the U of M.

“A lot of this is unknown to my students – students who were born and raised here in Manitoba and students who come from afar alike,” he says. “To be able to open students’ eyes to (these issues) is a rewarding endeavour.”

The next chapter for Patzer? A book project proposal focusing on a critical sociological analysis of Aboriginal law as related to the Canadian legal system.

“I’m interested in the idea of putting together a project that critically examines the limitations of the law for resolving historical grievances like we have in Canada,” he says. “A larger project that can examine the successes – or the strategies used – and also the difficulties of having the law try to resolve these historical grievances and these forms of harm that Indigenous Peoples have suffered historically.

An Important Distinction

When the Constitution Act, 1982 was established, ‘Aboriginal Peoples’ came into popular usage as the collective noun for First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples in Canada, and became more widespread when it was adopted by government and other groups across the country.

In recent years, however, language has shifted, recognizing First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples as ‘Indigenous Peoples’ to align with the language used in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Despite the shift in language, ‘Aboriginal law’ and ‘Indigenous law’ both still play a role in Canadian vernacular – with an important distinction. Aboriginal law denotes the body of law that concerns various issues related to Indigenous Peoples, such as treaty rights and duty to consult, whereas Indigenous law refers to the traditional customs and practices of Indigenous Peoples.

“My research in Aboriginal law performs a critical examination of the work of the settler state courts – not of the laws of Indigenous Peoples themselves,” says Patzer.

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of ResearchLIFE. 

Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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