Book Review: Law’s Indigenous Ethics

Several times each month, we are pleased to republish a recent book review from the Canadian Law Library Review (CLLR). CLLR is the official journal of the Canadian Association of Law Libraries (CALL/ACBD), and its reviews cover both practice-oriented and academic publications related to the law.

Law’s Indigenous Ethics. By John Borrows. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019. vii, 381 p. Includes bibliographic references and index. ISBN 978-1-4875-0491-5 (hardcover) $59.73; ISBN 978-14875-23555-8 (softcover) $39.95; ISBN 978-1-4875-3115-7 (eBook) $39.95.

Reviewed by Mary Hemmings
Law Librarian and Instructor
Faculty of Law, Thompson Rivers University
In CLLR 45:1

John Borrows is the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law at the University of Victoria Faculty of Law. His research focusses on environmental laws of Indigenous peoples and how unique approaches to regulating communities and settling disputes can be applied more broadly. These approaches involve custom, stories, song, dance, and other Indigenous traditions. His previous work includes Canada’s Indigenous Constitution (Canadian Law and Society Best Book Award, 2011) and Freedom and Indigenous Constitutionalism (Donald Smiley Award for the best book in Canadian political science, 2016). He is Anishinaabe/Ojibway and a member of the Chippewa of the Nawash First Nation in Ontario.

Essentially, this jurisprudential work incorporates different legal theories and will help develop Indigenous rights in Canada. Borrows relies on section 35(1) of the Constitution Act, dealing with existing Aboriginal treaty rights, throughout the book. Borrows maintains that constitutional originalism, or the belief that the Constitution is immutable, has excluded and marginalized Indigenous peoples.

Law’s Indigenous Ethics follows the author’s tradition of creative and insightful scholarship. It relies on Anishinaabe Grandmother and Grandfather teachings of love, truth, bravery, humility, wisdom, honesty, and respect as ethical relationships in Indigenous laws. The introductory chapters on love and truth examine treaties between Indigenous peoples and governments. The following chapters on bravery and humility examine the concept of Aboriginal title. Law and legal education are considered in depth in the chapters on wisdom and honesty. The final chapter on respect examines collective responsibilities regarding residential schools.

Borrows admits that these seven Anishinaabe Grandfather/Grandmother teachings may be relatively “new”; however, they are now a form of discourse as legal thought develops around Indigenous rights. Borrows has situated his study from the perspective of the Anishinaabe, and he readily admits that this work is not representative of all legal traditions and Indigenous orders in Canada. Rather, the perspective provides some context for how Indigenous orders can develop together with Canadian law. He prefers to consider this book not as a pronouncement of a legal theory but rather as an exercise of “issue identification” in the development of Canadian constitutional law. As such, this book will be deemed a foundational treatise in Canadian legal theory.

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