If you wandered by the Maxwell Cohen Moot Court on the second day of this year’s BCL/LLB Orientation, you must have wondered what was going on behind closed doors. Through the efforts of the Aboriginal Law Students Association and the First Peoples’ House of McGill, the incoming BCL/LLB students participated in an inter-tribal ceremony welcoming them to Montreal, to ancestral Haudenosaunee territory, and to the start of law school.
Inside, the normally sedate auditorium was utterly transformed: The air filled with fragrant smoke; the walls shook with the pounding rhythm of a central drum being played by the four men of the Buffalo Hat Singers, whose full-throated voices rose and fell as, first in a trickle, then in a flood, the new law students rose from their chairs to participate in a genuine Mohawk smudge ceremony.
Assisted by Kashennoktha Deer, a high school student from Kahnawake, they came forward to fan wafts of the sweet-smelling sage smoke over their heads, and to be swept by a baby eagle feather. They also shook the hand of Deer’s grandfather, Alex Sonny Diabo, a Mohawk Elder associated with the First People’s House of McGill, who presided over the ceremony.
“It was an interesting experience,” said Michael Osvath, an incoming student from Laval. “I’ve never been to anything of the sort before. It was meant to cleanse the mind, body and spirit. And I felt… well, invigorated after.” New student Veronique McKinnon, from Ottawa, agrees. “Initially I was timid, so I was glad when the members of ALSA broke the ice. I found it really moving, the music especially.”
“I felt it, too,” remarked drummer Norman Achneepineskum. “Something was building in that room. The students were lined up all the way up the stairs. We couldn’t stop, not until everyone who wanted to come down had the opportunity.”
Once the intense drumming and singing had died down and everyone had returned, cleansed and exhilarated, to their seats, Diabo addressed the incoming students, introducing them to the basic issues surrounding aboriginal languages, education and legal rights in Quebec. Speaking in Mohawk, he thanked the students for being there, and asked the Great Spirit to help guide them in their studies. In terms reminiscent of Dean Jutras’ own welcoming remarks, Diabo said quite simply, “help us clear our minds, so we can hear what is being said.”
Paige Isaac, the Coordinator Of the First People’s House (FPH) of McGill who co-organized the event, also stood to welcome the incoming students to the university. She invited the law community to attend FPH’s activities throughout the year: There are opportunities to learn more about indigenous languages—“Mohawk 101”—and political issues—“the Indigenous-Crown relationship in Canada”—as well as soup and bannock for hungry students on Wednesdays and, of course, the annual Pow Wow held on Lower Campus on September 20. After all, she said, “starting university may be the first occasion many people have to learn about aboriginal issues.”
Students and members of the McGill law community who are interested in learning more about the legal traditions of Aboriginal peoples in Canada and the legal issues affecting them should contact the Aboriginal Law Students Association/ L’association étudiante pour les droits des peuples autochtones (ALSA), at email@example.com