Partnerships for Success: Legal Cultures



Release Date

February 17, 2014


Ghislain Otis discusses the evolution of aboriginal legal systems. His partnership seeks to identify new, fair and balanced rules for coexistence in societies with aboriginal and Western legal cultures.

Read the transcript

This partnership is based on the study of aboriginal legal cultures, aboriginal legal traditions and the relationship between these legal traditions and that of the West.

The project was designed collaboratively with partners, three of which were university partners and seven, non-university, aboriginal partners.

We were all drawn to this project because we saw an urgent, worldwide need in many regions for the recognition of aboriginal legal cultures and for the implementation of mechanisms to enable cooperation between aboriginal and Western legal cultures. Why? Because we observed how nation-states—Western governments—established themselves in regions like Canada, Africa and the Pacific, imposing their own legal system while ignoring that people had been living for centuries in these areas and had developed their own legal systems—systems well suited to their societal model, to their economy and to their culture. And what has ultimately been ignored since that colonization is that these aboriginal legal systems continued to exist and to evolve, something that continues to pose significant practical challenges for aboriginal groups, families and individuals: what is a perfectly legitimate and effective legal system for these people is not officially recognized by the state legal system.

Each region—and even each aboriginal people—has a distinct legal culture and approach to interacting with the state. The James Bay Agreement, signed by the Cree and Inuit Peoples in Quebec and Canada, is one such example.

To a certain degree, while we did not formalize the Cree legal system through this mechanism, it did allow the Cree activists leading these organizations to introduce Cree values and normative horizons, an interaction between legal systems resulting in the creation of a hybrid system.

There is a hybridity between the Cree approach to security and that of Western institutions.

The first step in our research is to look at aboriginal legal cultures and thereby recognize their existence, their presence. The second important step is to examine ways of championing and revitalising aboriginal legal cultures, and in so doing, to ensure their lasting future.

The ultimate goal is to support societies in which aboriginal people coexist with people from elsewhere to identify new rules for coexistence, fairer and more balanced in the organization of legal systems. It is to end a colonial logic wherein Aboriginal cultures in general—and aboriginal legal cultures in particular—are, by definition, inferior to Western legal cultures.

We hope to identify innovative models of balanced interactions between aboriginal and Western legal cultures, as well as models rooted in a mindset of cooperation and fairness between cultures and, ultimately, between peoples.