‘Love needs to be a part of our action’: A conversation with John Borrows

“If we get everything else right—we dot all the Is and cross all the Ts with all the legislation and the Constitution—we’d still be lacking if the human heart doesn’t also respond to the hearts of our brothers and sisters, the bears and the beavers and the ducks and the winds and the waves.” Photo: University of Victoria
Published April 18, 2019

As part of its May issue’s exploration of colonialism and its legacy, the Anglican Journal spoke with Anishinaabe legal scholar John Borrows, Canada research chair in Indigenous law at the University of Victoria, where he co-founded the world’s first joint program in Indigenous law and non-Indigenous law.

The interview was edited for length. A shorter version will appear in the May print edition.

Should Canadian Anglicans be especially interested in Indigenous self-government?

I think so. The idea of Anglicans being interested in Indigenous sovereignty is an idea that they would be interested in having better relations with their fellow beings, humans and non-humans. If Indigenous sovereignty is recognized, we would be striving to incorporate ideas that are Indigenous to this place alongside those that have been introduced from elsewhere. And if we did that, our thinking would shift.

It could have implications in many fields. In environmental assessments, whenever there’s a proposal to change a land use, you study what the consequences and implications of that would be, and then you judge the results of that study against the standard. If Indigenous law was a part of those standards, some of the things that we’re currently allowing to happen that might have a damaging effect on the environment could be potentially restrained. In criminal justice, if you were incorporating Indigenous legal principles, some of the restorative justice elements might find a greater place. You might find that [Indigenous] law could also have an application like we’re seeing in the national scene right now—where someone cites their responsibilities in the Big House* and their understanding of meaning what they say when they speak their words—that could cause the national cabinet and committee structures to recalibrate how we would decide what to do around prosecutions, or political partisanship, or the independence of the attorney general.

I’m not an Anglican, but I think that the beauty of the tradition is an understanding of reconciliation and atonement, and finding ways to love your neighbour and do unto others as they would do unto you. The idea that the earth has something to teach us is prominent in Isaiah; it’s really strong in the way Jesus often directs us to mustard seeds, and water, and the forces of God’s creation around us, trying to find guidance for how we would behave in our daily lives by respecting the creation and the dignity that is placed in all human beings to live by a set of teachings that is loving and seeking to understand.

A self-determining Indigenous Anglican church within the Anglican Church of Canada may be established this July. Do you have any thoughts about that?

It feels like a nice response to the Truth and Reconciliation [Commission] Calls to Action that asked churches to consider their relations with Indigenous peoples and engage in education and organizational efforts to respond to what Indigenous peoples might be saying. To the extent that you’ve done that kind of consultation work with communities, and this is not a top-down imposition—if it’s responding to the needs of the people and the different congregations—then I think that provides a way of implementing that call.

You’ve said in the past that Indigenous self-government can benefit both the Crown and Indigenous people. How do you see that happening?

I think it benefits the Indigenous populations because it allows for us to be clearer in expressing our challenges as well as our distinctiveness, the things that are messy about us and the things that are beautiful about us. And self-determination tends to bring both of those things to the surface—it’s not a panacea; we’re not all just going to walk off into a utopia. But there will be many good things that we’ve hitherto been restrained from doing or dissuaded from doing that could rise to the surface. I think that’s good. And then it will be clearer, as well, where the tensions are as people struggle with that. To be able to be responsible for our own mess and responsible for our own conflict is, over the long term, a healthy thing. A community needs conflict to be able to survive—you can’t just live in a repressed state. But you need ways to deal with that conflict that are productive, that have some resources attached to them, or perspectives, or institutional certainty.

So how does that benefit the Crown? Well, it’s then part of the laboratory of experiential governance that we would be able to draw upon in the country, to maybe say, “Oh, we’ll take that analogy and we’ll apply it in our context. We’ll do things differently as the Crown because of what we’ve learned from seeing this in the Indigenous side of things,” and vice versa.

What more needs to happen to achieve Indigenous self-government?

I think we could do a lot to implement decisions that haven’t been fully implemented or respected by the leaders who have been directed by the courts to take certain actions. There is a significant deficit that Indigenous peoples are receiving in child welfare on reserves and that’s chronic, it’s systemic, it’s been generational. We do have statutes that would facilitate more Indigenous governance.

But having said all that, really, it’s a matter of the heart. We need to find places of faith in God and one another, faith in a sense of our own possibilities. There’s a spiritual need or basis for approaching these issues, and we can get all the other pieces right—but if the human spirit and heart don’t join, we’re not going to get there. So we have to pay attention to issues of character. Love needs to be a part of our action and conversation, [as do] truth, honesty, wisdom, humility, bravery. If we get everything else right—we dot all the Is and cross all the Ts with all the legislation and the Constitution—we’d still be lacking if the human heart doesn’t also respond to the hearts of our brothers and sisters, the bears and the beavers and the ducks and the winds and the waves. That sense of the way Anishnaabe spirituality would look at it, I think, is also found in Anglicanism—[and] in many other spiritual traditions.

There are some wonderful constitutions in the world that are written with high-sounding words, and the people are living in poverty and oppression. Law ultimately is a human activity—it’s something we have to do; it’s not just done to us. And I think that’s the same with what we’ve been given in our other traditions, including our spiritual traditions, that God lays out guidance or a plan, or helps, but then we have to pick those up and live the things that we’ve been taught. There’s that statement in John [John 7:17], “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God or whether I speak of myself.” It’s in the doing that we come to the realization of what God wishes for us, and I think it’s the same case with the laws that we create. It’s in the loving your neighbour, ultimately, as opposed to the text. The text is very important; it’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient.

There’s some anxiety among non-Indigenous Canadians about Indigenous self-government. How do you address this?

I think it would benefit non-Indigenous peoples if we became more able to make our own decisions. Literature shows that that leads to better health outcomes in terms of life expectancy—dealing with some of the social challenges around substance abuse, etc. So there’d be a healthier population, and that would make Canadians safer, and the health also contributes to the economic productivity and prosperity of people when you can be an entrepreneur and innovate and hold down a job and keep your family safe. First Nations are “bungee economies”—a dollar will come in to that community but it will immediately bounce back out because that First Nation will spend that dollar at the local town or the regional centre. But if you get that dollar to circulate among a few hands within the Indigenous context it multiplies, right? So when that bounces back out, that’s a benefit to Canadians more generally, as well. There’s [also] the spiritual or ethical or humanitarian advantage—that when we’re able to produce not just dollars or healthy bodies but also ideas that are engaging, that are intriguing, that are enlightening, that are challenging, that are maybe hopeful and inspiring, that probably will benefit Canadians as well.

*On February 27, not long before this interview, former federal Justice Minister and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould ended her testimony to a House of Commons justice committee on the SNC-Lavalin affair by citing her obligation to tell the truth “in accordance with the laws and traditions of our Big House.” The Big House is a traditional centre of ceremony and decision-making for the Kwakwaka’wakw first nation, of which Wilson-Raybould is a member.


  • Tali Folkins

    Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.

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