In February 2012, the University of British Columbia hosted a panel discussion called “Aboriginal Oral Histories in the Courtroom: More than just a matter of evidence.” The event was put on in an attempt by UBC professors to address the ignorance of the importance and legitimacy of Aboriginal oral histories in the Canadian justice system.
In 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada’s Delgamuukw decision determined that oral traditions must be placed “on an equal footing with the types of historical evidence that courts are familiar with” in Aboriginal land claims court proceedings. However, Aboriginal oral history remains largely misunderstood within the Canadian justice system, due to conceptions of law as taking written form, and legal concerns about “hearsay”, which is the rule that people in court are not allowed to talk about things they have not seen first hand. Additionally, the broadly defined language of Delgamuukw has yet to be fully interpreted into more clearly defined rules around Aboriginal oral history in the courtroom.
In this panel discussion, experts from anthropology, law, literature, and Indigenous studies explore how oral narratives might be treated in the long process from their transmission by one person to another, their placement in archives, their handling by Crown and tribal/band researchers, their performance in a courtroom, and finally to their evaluation by trial judges as forms of evidence. The panelists consider the role of cultural “insiders” and “outsiders” and how an ethics of collaboration may offer strategies for addressing the problem of translating oral traditions into statements of Aboriginal title in the courtroom. They also invite us to consider how scholarship can transform the process of Aboriginal rights litigation. The video of the panel can be watched here.