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Helping law live up to its potential

John Borrows: 2021 CBA President’s Award recipient.

John Burrows

The memory that sticks out for John Borrows from watching George Armstrong and Dave Keon as a boy is how both men played hockey with honour and fairness. They were determined, and did their work by trying to respect others. It’s a lesson Borrows would take with him into a distinguished legal career.

The Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law at the University of Victoria, who was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, is one of this year’s President’s Award recipients. Underpinning his remarkable body of work are three simple but powerful words: Friendship, encouragement and hope.

“Our ancient treaties, from the 1760s,” he explains, “were treaties of peace, friendship and respect, and the way people put relationships together was very much around those ideas. And I’ve tried to find ways to make this part of my life.”

These words aren’t just aspirational. They are fundamental to the way we live together. “We can have all these nice laws written into constitutions and cases and legislation,” Borrows says, “but if underneath that, we’re just being nasty to one another, or not finding ways to be friendly, to look at this in ways that we actually do things together, then there is really no effective law. Law doesn’t live up to its potential without people trying to join together and find fun and mutual interests and ways of putting a life together that is supportive.”

Borrows, who is Anishinaabe/Ojibway and a member of Chippewa of the Nawash First Nation in Ontario, learned encouragement from his mother. He remembers her coming to a conference in Chippewa to support him. There were a lot of students present and “they asked if she would come and speak with them.” She demurred, insisting that with her limited education, she was not qualified to speak. “I’m just an encourager of young people,” she told them.

“I realized that that’s what my mother had always been to me, for all of her life, an encourager of people,” Borrows says, adding that he now tries to do the same with those around him, starting with students. “I want to have everyone meet their highest goal and their best aspirations.”

His work, including his many books, have earned him several awards already. But where the soft-spoken professor derives the most pride is taking law students outdoors to learn Anishinaabe law of the land, trekking to the shores and escarpments of the Bruce peninsula or climbing Mount Royal from McGill University, just below, to look at the stars. “All the constellations have different stories attached to them,” he explains. “The Big Dipper in Anishinaabe is Ojiig’anung, the Fisher Star.” People would wander by and his students would share their learnings with them.

Borrows has his eyes fully open to the sadness and hurt in the world, but he is hopeful. “It would be unrealistic not to recognize that the inspiration, the change, the possibility, the ways that people are doing better, more creatively, that gives me hope,” he said, adding that over nearly three decades of teaching he has seen many people go on to do incredible things. “They’re actually living hope.”

The CBA’s purposes of working towards a fair justice system, effective law reform, equality and anti-discrimination, he says, “are the things that we’re all working on in our profession, in our best moments. This award is a recognition of those goals,” he adds, hoping that, in a small way, his career has contributed to advancing them.

The CBA President’s Award recognizes the significant contribution of a Canadian jurist to the legal profession, to the Canadian Bar Association or to the public life of Canada. View the list of past recipients here.


John Borrows B.A., M.A., J.D., LL.M. (Toronto), Ph.D. (Osgoode Hall Law School), LL.D. (Hons., Dalhousie, York, SFU, Queen’s & Law Society of Ontario), D.H.L, (Toronto), F.R.S.C., O.C., is the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law at the University of Victoria Law School in British Columbia. His publications include, Recovering Canada; The Resurgence of Indigenous Law (Donald Smiley Award for the best book in Canadian Political Science, 2002), Canada’s Indigenous Constitution (Canadian Law and Society Best Book Award 2011), Drawing Out Law: A Spirit’s Guide (2010), Freedom and Indigenous Constitutionalism (Donald Smiley Award for the best book in Canadian Political Science, 2016), The Right Relationship (with Michael Coyle, ed.), Resurgence and Reconciliation (with Michael Asch, Jim Tully, eds.), Law’s Indigenous Ethics (2020 Best subsequent Book Award from Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, 2020 W. Wes Pue Best book award from the Canadian Law and Society Association). He is the 2017 Killam Prize winner in Social Sciences and the 2019 Molson Prize Winner from the Canada Council for the Arts, the 2020 Governor General’s Innovation Award, Officer of the Order of Canada, 2020. John is Anishinaabe/Ojibway and a member of the Chippewa of the Nawash First Nation in Ontario, Canada.