When Drew Mildon was attending law school at the University of Victoria, students didn’t have the opportunity to study Indigenous law in depth. To some, this was a missed opportunity to broaden their legal knowledge, but for others it posed a significant conflict. “I remember Indigenous women in my courses talking about making the choice to stay and learn from their grandmothers or going into this Western education system,” says Mildon, who holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and a law degree from UVic.
UVic addressed this tension in 2018 by launching the world’s first joint degree program in Canadian common law and Indigenous legal orders (“JD/JID”). Students graduating from the four-year program finish with two professional degrees: a Juris Doctor (JD) and a Juris Indigenarum Doctor (JID). Through mandatory field studies in indigenous communities across Canada, students observe first-hand the ways these processes are being used today.
As part of his legal practice at Woodward & Co. LLP, Mildon works for First Nations governments and organizations in their fight for self-determination. There has been an open exchange of ideas, between the firm and UVic, as the program was developed, and this support has not ceased. Woodwards provides a scholarship for undergraduate students entering or continuing in the JD/JID program or to Indigenous students enrolling in the JD program. The firm also contributes annual funding for the Indigenous Perspectives camp, which gives UVic law students the opportunity to engage with Indigenous cultures, communities, history, and perspectives on law and legal orders. Mildon has been a long-standing advocate for the JD/JID program.
“For a decade I’ve loved talking [the JID] up to my clients,” Mildon says. “I tell them ‘your law—the law your grandmothers talk about—is becoming accepted and recognized. There’s going to be an opportunity for you to get a degree in Indigenous laws.’ Watching that understanding dawn on young people in those communities is a really powerful thing.”
New award honors donors’ grandmothers and aims to amplify indigenous voices
While students in the JID program will have a different experience than Mildon’s, they’re likely to have common concerns about money, grades and landing a job after graduation. The JID requires an additional year to complete, so the cost is higher than the typical JD track. Mildon says starting an award to support indigenous law students was an easy decision.
Together with his wife, Dr. Athena Madan, Mildon created the Presquito Murdoch Indigenous Law Award. Madan, who will be joining UVic as an assistant professor of sociology in July, shares their commitment to “creating, making and holding space for Indigenous voices.” They hope the award will “help maintain a path for Indigenous students, who will further unlock the future for their descendants and continue to oppose oppression in all its forms.”
Mildon and Madan named the award to honor their grandmothers who didn’t have access to educational opportunities. “My own ancestors are Cordilleran Filipino, who are politically active Indigenous land defenders. My Lola [Presquito] would sit and eavesdrop outside of the gated area of schools in the Philippines and squint through the slats of the wooden fence and learn how to read and write,” says Madan. Mildon’s grandmother [Murdoch]who was deaf, overcame adversity to raise four children alone.
“My hope is that [an Indigenous law student] might be inspired by our grandmothers’ stories and feel more able to give to their own communities. Hopefully, the fruit of their labors will assist with self-determination and help facilitate our own commitments to reconciliation in the Canadian landscape,” says Madan.
Innovative program makes immediate impact
The first JD/JID cohort was recognized on April 9 with a special celebration ceremony held at the Songhees Wellness Centre. Credit: UVic Photo Services
The JID gives voice and recognition to Indigenous laws while equipping students with a collaborative community-based methodology that is necessary to work with Indigenous peoples and governments across Canada.
“Indigenous law is an essential part of Indigenous peoples being peoples and it is foundational to Canada’s multi-juridical system,” says Val Napoleon, interim Dean of Law, co-founder of the program, and Law Foundation Chair of Indigenous Justice and Governance at UVic. “Law is an essential ingredient of every society because it is a part of governance, it is a part of how we manage ourselves and it is a part of how we are responsible to ourselves, to each other, and to our global community. I hope our graduates will take with them the ability to center Indigenous law in the world as a collaborative and principled way to solve problems, so that is never reduced to just words on paper, because it is so much more than that.”
Mildon admits to sometimes being frustrated at the way bureaucracy can impede progress in indigenous self-determination, but he’s confident the JID is a step in the right direction. “I interact with the work the Indigenous Law Research Unit is doing out there in the world. We’re seeing its impact already on all sorts of levels, not the least of which, is incorporation of Indigenous law into BC and Federal legislation.”
The first cohort of the joint degree program is graduating this spring and student demand is already outpacing capacity. Mildon hopes the UVic community will take the opportunity to support the unique and powerful program in any way they can. “I honestly don’t think there’s a lot of encouragement necessary. It’s one of those things where the benefit speaks for itself.”
The first Presquito Murdoch Indigenous Law award will be disbursed this fall and given to Indigenous students continuing in the Faculty of Law JD/JID program.