Alberta lawyers will vote Monday on whether to keep a rule set by their governing body that mandates Indigenous competency training, after 51 of the province’s more than 11,000 legal practitioners introduced a motion to scrap it.
The Law Society of Alberta, a self-governing body that sets standards for lawyers, adopted Rule 67.4 in December, 2020, which allows its board to prescribe further education for members. The only education currently required under that rule is a five-hour training module called “The Path: Your Journey Through Indigenous Canada.” Lawyers risk suspension if it is not completed.
The society is holding a special meeting in which active members will debate and vote on whether to maintain the rule. The issue has sparked widespread discussion in the legal community, with more than 400 lawyers signing an open letter in support of the regulation alongside dozens more non-active members, law professors, students and organizations.
The course was introduced in response to one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action. The commission said lawyers should receive appropriate training on Indigenous history, including the residential school system and Crown-Indigenous relations.
The training in Alberta is specific to the province’s Indigenous history and touches on cultural values, reconciliation and Canada’s current legal and constitutional relationship with Indigenous peoples.
Lawyers Roger Song and Benjamin Ferland wrote a letter in July that was sent to members of the law society. In it, they argued that the society should not have the power to mandate “cultural, political or ideological education of any kind.” They said the opposition was not based on a “belief that understanding Indigenous culture is unimportant.” The missive gave rise to a formal petition against the rule that was eventually signed by 51 lawyers.
Mr. Song and Mr. Ferland declined interview requests, but Mr. Ferland stressed that there is a diverse group of opinions among those who oppose the mandatory education rule. Among them is lawyer Glenn Blackett, who wrote an opinion piece for the Western Standard, in which he argued that the society is imposing “political indoctrination,” and that intergenerational trauma among Indigenous peoples is an “ethereal boogeyman.”
The open letter in support of the rule, released on Thursday, said the requirement is an important step toward reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and toward “ensuring the minimal competence of lawyers protects the public,” which is part of the law society’s mandate.
Indigenous lawyer Koren Lightning-Earle collected signatures for the letter with four colleagues. She said it was heartening to see solidarity in such large numbers, but that the petition is disturbing. She added that the constant battle to advance Indigenous rights is tiresome.
“The TRC calls to action were calls to all Canadians,” she said. “We need to make sure that those that practise law are educated on the history about Indigenous peoples and the justice system and what role it played in residential schools. It’s woven into our society, so it should be woven into our education.”
Alberta’s law society is governed by a board with 24 members, known as benchers. This week, they released an open letter to some 11,000 active lawyers, calling on them to oppose repealing the rule. It said the “privilege of self-regulation” is at the heart of the coming debate. The society has been operating as an independent regulator since 1907.
“In consideration of this authority, the Law Society must regulate in the public interest, which includes promoting and enforcing a high standard of professional and ethical conduct by Alberta lawyers,” the letter said.
“Continuing professional development programs serve the public interest by strengthening public confidence in Alberta’s legal profession. Alberta lawyers are required to participate in activities that enhance their skills, integrity, knowledge and professionalism.”
The society’s executive director, Elizabeth Osler, said in a statement that the society is committed to ensuring a fair and transparent debate. She did not take a stance on the issue.
Active Alberta lawyers must attend the virtual meeting on Monday in order to vote. Even if the resolution against the rule passes, it is not binding on the law society or the benchers, but it must be considered by the board at its next meeting, which is to be held later this month. No further action is required if the resolution fails.