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Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Canada’s law has room for love

March 15, 2014 — 

Has love any place in the language of rights?

John Borrows (Kegedonce), a law professor at both the University of Minnesota and the University of Victoria (where he is Law Foundation Chair in Aboriginal Justice) and a member of Ontario’s Chippewas of Nawash First Nation, asked this question in his lecture at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights on Feb. 17.

The talk, “First Nations and Human Rights,”  was part of the Fragile Freedoms Lecture Series sponsored by the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the U of M.

Borrows pointed out that other abstract ideas such as life, liberty, and equality are intrinsic to law. So why not love?  With the lecture taking place on Louis Riel Day, Borrows reminded his audience that Riel talked about love in his speeches. Borrows argued Aboriginal rights require the bridging of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures and the accommodation of values from both groups. And Indigenous peoples’ privileging of love could provide such a bridge.

The Anishinabek word for love is related to the word for the mouth of a river, Borrows explained, and love, like a river’s mouth, is full of the nutrients required for an abundant life. Citing historical examples of love’s prominent role in the elaborate ceremonies of exchange that took place among Anishinabe and other Indigenous groups and British and French people, Borrows pointed out that the Indian Act and additional Treaty interpretations are contrary to love. They ignore the intercultural and intersocietal bridges necessary for harmonious relations among these different peoples.

Responding to a question from the audience, Borrows acknowledged that love can be paternalistic or even infantalising. What is needed, Borrows suggested, is for love to be triangulated with equality and freedom. Referencing Indigenous people’s love of the land, Borrows recommends being “more romantic,” overall, when it comes to the Earth, especially when considering activities like fracking, nuclear energy, mining, and logging.

Borrows has a lengthy list of publications, which have won numerous awards. Perhaps the authoritative statement of his views is found in his book Canada’s Indigenous Constitution. In its preface, Borrows describes how “Anishinabek legal traditions are drawn from places other than courts, legislatures, lawyer’s briefs, or law professors’ lectures….They are nourished by a grandparent’s teachings, a law professor’s reflections, an animal’s behaviour, an engraved image, and a landscape’s contours.”  Borrows’s lecture showed how indigenous law can be a source of creativity for all Canadians, and how the law itself can be a source for reconciliation.

Borrows’s lecture was broadcast on the CBC Ideas programme, and is available from the CBC website.



One comment on “Canada’s law has room for love

  1. Chris Bryce

    Wow. Finally found the source of that amazing, moving and memorable lecture I heard on the radio while travelling in BC. I am hoping to understand more and find a visual of the symbol with the hands the was a sign of love/friendship. (I am a bit fuzzy on that but the idea stuck with me. )

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