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Alberta lawyers decry mandatory Indigenous cultural training imposed by law society

National Post logo National Post 2023-02-04 Tyler Dawson
Calgary lawyer Roger Song is among those who have signed a petition seeking to remove the ability of the Law Society of Alberta to mandate specific professional development courses such as The Path, a recent module on Indigenous 'cultural competency' © Provided by National Post Calgary lawyer Roger Song is among those who have signed a petition seeking to remove the ability of the Law Society of Alberta to mandate specific professional development courses such as The Path, a recent module on Indigenous 'cultural competency'

Fifty-one Alberta lawyers are arguing that the province’s attorneys should not have to complete mandatory courses on Indigenous cultures in order to practice law, ahead of a special meeting of the Law Society of Alberta to debate the merits of the “cultural competency” training.

Leading the charge against the training is Calgary lawyer Roger Song, who garnered signatures for the petition that’s up for debate. In a letter to the law society, Song says that he grew up in China, and knows a thing or two about indoctrination.

“This kind of mandatory education constitutes an insult to freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression,” he writes. “It amounts to a use of power to impose propaganda and politics.”

Still, the signatories take pains to make it clear they do not believe that understanding Indigenous culture is unimportant. In an interview from his Calgary office, Song said that his belief is that lawyers would be better off if they could choose the sort of continuing education they underwent, based on their professional needs and other factors.

“It will raise a lot of concern for people who may have a different worldview, who may have a different faith, who may have a different cultural perspective,” Song said. “Lawyers want to improve themselves by a lot of ways, but they don’t just want to be treated like a (third grade) student.”

Song suggested the law society could establish seminars for lawyers to attend, or a forum to connect lawyers to Indigenous people to talk to them, instead of working from their home or office on an online course.

“Nobody can claim that they, with a five hour video and reading some stuff, then suddenly you’re culturally competent,” Song said. “So we believe that this type of approach of mandatory program or mandatory education imposed by the law society is not in the public interest.”

While the debate has spilled over into larger discussions of culture and politics, at least some of the signatories firmly believe what’s at issue is whether the law society actually has the power to implement continuing education. (Others, meanwhile, argue it’s well within the   society’s powers.)

“Rather, we oppose it because we do not believe the (law society’s board members) have or should have the power to mandate cultural, political, or ideological education of any kind on Alberta lawyers as a condition of practice,” says a letter to the law society.

Since April 2021, the organization has mandated such training, citing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action No. 27, which calls on law societies to “ensure that lawyers receive appropriate cultural competency training, which includes the history and legacy of residential schools.”

The province’s lawyers had 18 months to finish the course.

In the time since, 9,769 Alberta lawyers were required to take the course. It’s called The Path, and pledges to teach lawyers about the history of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. The curriculum, which mirrors the sort of subjects social studies students tackle, includes Indigenous creation myths, the history of migration to the Americas, the history of the Indian Act and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Krysia Przepiorka, an Indigenous defence lawyer, said she found the course to be fitting, and not “sugar-coated” when it came to tackling Canada’s history. She said when she heard of the objections to the course, she was disappointed, since she felt the course was a step in the right direction.

“I found it accurate when I took the course and I just thought, you know, there was a lot of effort put into this course, and I really thought it was a great response to that call to action,” Przepiorka said.

The petition argues that mandatory training “unnecessarily diminishes and hinders professional autonomy in the area of (continuing professional development) to the detriment of the profession and the public.”

Yet, objections aside, just 26 of the lawyers who had to complete the training missed the October 2022 deadline; since then, all but eight lawyers have acceded to the rule.

On Thursday, the 51 signatories of Song’s petition were countered by a 400-lawyer-strong letter that favours retaining the present training regime. It also includes another 124 signatures from non-active lawyers, and law and articling students, and urges the law society to keep the training requirement.

“The petition appears to be a direct attack on the Indigenous cultural competency requirement,” the letter notes.

The fact that the overwhelming majority of Alberta’s lawyers have done the course hasn’t stopped the controversy. And, while there’s the dimension of whether the law society even can — or should — mandate such training, some argue such training constitutes progressive indoctrination of the legal profession.

Leighton Grey, a lawyer in Cold Lake, Alta., argues in a letter included in a package sent to law society members about the motion that The Path is based upon “political ideology” and is “rife with inaccuracy and skewed by a post-modernist history of Indigenous peoples in Canada.”

Grey, a member of the Carry The Kettle First Nation in Saskatchewan, argues that his grandmother attended a residential school, and came away with fond memories; “stories like hers are far from unique and may in fact be far more representative of the (Indian Residential Schools) experience than the victimhood narrative” in the final TRC report, Grey writes.

In a lengthy essay for the Dorchester Review , Glenn Blackett, a litigator with the libertarian Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, argues that the education program is part of a “radical, activist and authoritarian movement known as ‘wokeness.'”

“Through a combination of post-modern ideology and a clumsy, distorted and lopsided history, the main lesson intended for Alberta lawyers seems to be that Canadian history, as it relates to our indigenous people, is entirely one of racism and genocide — evils which somehow remain inherently lodged in Canadian law and legal structures,” Blackett writes.

The law society, for its part, has urged lawyers to side with the training, arguing that such a program is in the public interest.

If the members vote in favour of the motion to eliminate cultural competency training, the board — called benchers — will need to consider removing the training; it would then take a two-thirds vote among the law society’s 24 benchers to fully implement the change.

But, it seems likely that there will be substantial opposition; lawyers who support the training and oppose the motion have been calling out to their colleagues on social media to register to speak in favour at Monday’s meeting.

Przepiorka said she’s planning to attend Monday’s meeting, and intends to speak out in favour of the training program.

“When I look at this as a First Nations person, I look at this as a commitment from a profession, that they are acknowledging our history in this country and they’re ensuring that their profession has accurate and competent cultural training,” Przepiorka said. “And then when I look at it as a lawyer, I think it’s a huge commitment for our law society in response to those calls to action. And I just thought, what a great way for our privileged profession to show our commitment to moving forward with Indigenous people.”

National Post, with additional reporting from the Edmonton Journal

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