I was thrilled to attend the International Association of Woman Judges conference this year; it was a privilege to be surrounded by such a high calibre of talent and knowledge. The speakers were all phenomenal in their own right, but one that stuck with me was Val Napoleon and her talk on “Imagining Beyond Diversity.” As a white woman hoping to advance in the legal profession, one of the most important things for me is to recognise where the law falters and doesn’t advance the rights of our most vulnerable. Napoleon made it so openly apparent that the legal system fails indigenous societies, and violence finds a space to harm the most vulnerable where indigenous law is undermined. People ascribe meaning to their actions through law; it founds communities. Colonial history has often worked (both in Canada and New Zealand) to render these communities, and their legal orders invisible and mere recognition will not nullify the denigration and harm that has occurred. Napoleon poses a metaphor for indigenous legal order as stars, stating, “What if all the stars mattered.” This comment was compelling, as it emphasised the need for a pluralistic system in which multiple legal universes can co-exist harmoniously. Visibility of indigenous law needs to occur by understanding what is legal according to them and what research needs to take place to aid decisions in indigenous forums.
The imposition of the colonial legal order is, unfortunately, something that is not unique to places like Canada, and many speakers delved into the Maori vein of this issue. Growing up in a predominantly white community has exposed me to a presupposition present among many, which is that Maori fare equally under our legal systems. While I knew this was fundamentally incorrect, it is still shocking to hear of the inequalities riddling our justice system (specifically in the criminal justice area). The talk from Denise Clark was fantastic in addressing different ways justice can operate outside of a western adversarial context. Rangatahi courts aim to reconnect Maori offenders with their heritage and transform the justice system to allow Maori voices to be heard. There is a disproportionate amount of Maori in courts, so instead of punishing them, the aim is to reconnect them in an environment that generates respect. Often offending is because of the trauma of colonisation and the destruction of Maori identity that went along with it. By creating a situation that focuses on the root of the problem and is guided by Maori principles, the outcomes are often distinctly better.
On the whole, these talks were fantastic and worked to directly acknowledge how the western legal system can suppress indigenous law and principles. However, alternatives are also posed, providing hope for a future where “all the stars matter.” I know the legal profession is in very capable hands if these women are at the forefront of it. Their multifaceted approach that acknowledges the intersubjective nature of the law is precisely what we need going forward in a multicultural world.