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A mechanical room on the second level was redesigned as an open student workspace, known as The Centre for Collaborative & Experiential Learning.Diamond Schmitt

After 50 years, the University of Windsor’s law school building is getting a makeover, with new features to help move legal education into the 21st century.

Construction started at the end of 2020 to overhaul Windsor Law’s Ron W. Ianni building, which opened in 1970 and was designed in the brutalist style that was popular at universities in the baby boom days.

The bulky brick structure was designed to reflect Windsor Law’s philosophy of teaching “law as a social process” – an agent of change.

“The building served us well for a half-century. It reflected how we want to be a different kind of law school, and we don’t want to change that,” says Windsor Law’s dean Christopher Waters. “We do want it to be more modern, more welcoming and more accessible,” he says.

The boomer-era building needs to keep up with the times because law and the way we learn are different now than 50 years ago, he explains. It opened 12 years before Canada’s Constitution was patriated; Pierre Trudeau was prime minister; Justin wasn’t born yet.

In those days, law students – mostly male – needed to pore over casebooks in the library rather than look at databases, and important areas such as environmental and Indigenous law were just starting to be acknowledged by the legal system.

The building normally serves 720 students, but during the pandemic, they are learning remotely and will return to a temporary site on campus whenever lockdowns are over.

Over the years, the structure itself has been tweaked a few times – built-in ashtrays were turned into flowerpots, and more women’s washrooms were added.

The new project’s architect, Duncan Higgins of Diamond Schmitt Architects, says he has consulted extensively with the school’s faculty, students and Windsor Law’s Indigenous Elder in Residence, Myrna Kicknosway. She advises the school on Indigenous culture, including its place in Canadian law.

The $30-million renovation, which will take two years, is designed to be definitive and look forward, Mr. Higgins says.

“It is a good building, but it is outdated,” he says. “There are issues but there are also opportunities.”

The issues and the opportunities fall into several categories. The old building is not easily accessible for people with disabilities, and that will change.

It’s dark inside and not ideal for students to work in groups, so Mr. Higgins and the contractors, EllisDon Corp. and Fortis Construction Group Inc., are adding windows and reconfiguring classrooms to allow collaboration, which aligns with the way lawyers actually work today.

Mr. Higgins says the school’s law library, still an important part of the school, is also being adjusted for the 21st century. Law students and lawyers now can get case law online rather than sifting through dusty books, but the students still need a quiet place to study, concentrate and do group work.

Most importantly, perhaps, the structure is being reimagined to recognize a huge and still emerging cultural shift in Canadian law and Canadian society – reconciliation and a new relationship with Indigenous people.

“We want to make it more modern and at the same time incorporate Indigenous design principles,” Prof. Waters says. Indigenous law is a key component of the school’s program and it’s increasingly important to Canadian jurisprudence in the 21st century, he says.

The school launched an Indigenous Legal Orders Institute in 2019 to help build knowledge and understanding about how both federal and provincial legislation and court rulings now incorporate Indigenous law and principles. A course in Indigenous Legal Orders is now mandatory at Windsor Law for first-year students.

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The new commons area of the University of Windsor's law school, with maximized daylight and views, will improve navigation through the building.Diamond Schmitt

Mr. Higgins says he started the redesign by recognizing this issue – and as he says, also the opportunity. The first thing was to note where the law building is located. “It’s called ‘Wawiiatanong Ziibi’ – an Anishinaabemowin translation of ‘where the river bends.’”

Windsor Law itself describes its location as “on the traditional territory of the Three Fires Confederacy, which is comprised of the Ojibway, the Odawa, and the Potawatomi.” In 1812, the Shawnee hero Chief Tecumseh joined with British forces to capture Detroit from the Americans (though it was recaptured the next year).

Some of the current school building’s few existing windows look out on a bend in the Detroit River and the Ambassador Bridge that links Ontario with Michigan, the busiest border crossing between Canada and the United States. Windsor Law and the University of Detroit Mercy, across the river, run a joint program where students can get both Canadian and American law degrees.

A key part of the design process involved consulting with Ms. Kicknosway, as well as the school’s Indigenous faculty members, staff and students.

Associate dean Beverly Jacobs is a member of the Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) community. “A lot of what she [the Elder] tells us about is ceremony,” Prof. Jacobs says, “so, the design includes space for smudging [an Indigenous purifying ceremony] and for our Elder to talk and work one-on-one with our students, not just Indigenous law students but all our law students.”

Ceremony is important in all aspects of our legal system – Canadian judges and lawyers alike dress in ornate legal robes and there are mannered, arcane ways of addressing the court as well as other lawyers and juries.

Canada’s justice system now sometimes includes courts for Indigenous people, which can decide on alternative sentencing, such as sending an accused person to join a healing circle that may include the victim rather than sending the accused to jail. The new Windsor Law building is designed to help students understand how all this fits in with modern law.

“I actually like to teach in a circle, and the classrooms are being set up so this can be done,” Prof. Jacobs says. “Circles are really important to Indigenous principles, because they put everyone in the room on an equal footing.”

The building will also include Indigenous art pieces, which, in addition to looking good, are instructive, Prof. Jacobs adds. “Our artists can visualize our laws, and art is a way to recognize the place of Indigenous law in our legal system,” she says.

“The new building is going to retain the sharp and bold exterior of the old one,” says Prof. Waters, who spearheaded a $6-million fundraising campaign to help pay for the major rehab.

“On the inside, it will be much warmer and more accepting.”

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