Canada uses two legal systems—Common Law and Quebec’s Civil Code. University of Alberta PhD student Hadley Friedland would like us to recognize more—those used by Aboriginal Peoples in Canada.
“My goal is to put aboriginal legal traditions on similar footing as other legal traditions in Canada,” said Friedland.
Friedland’s research into identifying and applying indigenous legal principles to the issue of endemic intimate violence in aboriginal communities have earned her SSHRC’s first Talent Award, an award that recognizes an outstanding emerging scholar and future leader.
Her early career in children’s services had a profound impact on her work and thinking. “The question often on my mind,” said Friedland, “was, ‘how do we protect those we love from those we love?’”
As a law student, Friedland learned about legal traditions such as torts and contracts. She decided to use the same rigour and adapt the case method she learned in law school to investigate how indigenous people address similar issues. Spending time as a youth in a small Cree community in western central Alberta, she learned a different approach to crime and rehabilitation—but it was not seen as legitimate by Canadian society.
“I have seen first-hand the consequences of the disrespect and the erasure of people’s decision-making, and the narrative in popular culture, in academia, and in professional circles of a disrespect so deep it’s a silence. I’m passionate about giving back that respect and naming it,” said Friedland.
Friedland left her home in Stony Plain at age 15, and was welcomed into a family at Susa Creek in the Aseniwuche Winewak Nation.
“That experience led me to develop a deep respect and appreciation for all there was to learn,” she said. “Whenever I made a mistake, an elder would often correct me by telling me a story.”
She was particularly intrigued by stories of the Wetiko (also known as the Windigo). The Wetiko is sometimes described as a giant monster, but Friedland was more interested in real-life stories where a loved one transformed into a Wetiko. She came to see the Wetiko as a legal category to describe someone who has created great harm to others in Cree and Anishinabek societies.
“It’s a legal concept. We call people criminals. We can call people sex offenders. We can call people all sorts of things in Canadian law,” says Friedland.
She said in the vast majority of cases, people who were Windigos were subsequently healed—a different, but equally principled response—rather than punished.
Friedland says giving First Nations back their ability to make their own legal decisions publically is a vital step in repairing a long history of damage and colonialism.
Friedland’s method of investigating and identifying aboriginal legal concepts of is now used by the Accessing Justice and Reconciliation Project, funded by the Law Foundation of Ontario. The resulting work has produced community resources for legal orders across Canada, as well as resources for the University of Victoria’s indigenous law degree program in development.
Friedland’s master’s thesis, which explores how Wetiko legal principles might apply today to child victimization and intimate violence in aboriginal communities, is already required course reading at the University of Victoria, York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Alberta.