When Jessica Asch was in law school, nothing like her current job even existed.
Although at that time she could not have even imagined her current career as a possibility, working for the Indigenous Law Research Unit
has been the most engaging and gratifying work that she has ever done.
Jessica decided to go to law school after experiencing the challenges of the Canadian immigration process first-hand. Despite Jessica and her non-Canadian partner having lived together for 10 years in Canada, his immigration application was denied based on a legal technicality. This influenced Jessica’s desire to learn more about navigating systems that have the potential to, sometimes arbitrarily, affect peoples’ lives in profound ways.
Jessica’s father worked on questions of Indigenous-settler relations and spent time working with the Dene Nation
in the Northwest Territories. From a young age, Jessica was exposed to Indigenous laws and the impacts of colonization. Therefore, another motivating factor in entering law school for Jessica was to examine the legitimacy of Canadian sovereignty and explore Indigenous legal orders. However, there was very little acknowledgment of Indigenous laws within law schools or the legal profession at that time.
After graduating from the University of Victoria’s Faculty of Law, clerking for a year at the BC Supreme Court
, articling with a union, and working as a policy analyst for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner
, Jessica came across the Indigenous Law Research Unit (ILRU) at her alma mater. She had an opportunity to discuss the project, which was established in partnership with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
, with its founders: Val Napoleon and Hadley Friedland. She viewed the project as an opportunity to work through broad questions regarding the reconciliation of law and peoples in Canada and jumped at the chance to contribute. Jessica had faced some roadblocks working for organizations that only operated within the parameters of state law, and she viewed ILRU as an opportunity to expand the boundaries of her legal work. Jessica’s past experience as a community organizer and educator made the collaborative and community-centered approach especially interesting to her.
Jessica is currently one of two research directors at the ILRU (alongside Tara Williamson) and she has been working for the unit for almost 10 years. ILRU is like an NGO within a law school – it operates at arms-length, is independent, and relies mostly on project-based funding. ILRU partners with Indigenous communities (at their request) to help articulate different areas of Indigenous law. The main purpose of ILRU is to organize information about the historic laws of Indigenous peoples so that they are accessible and understandable to people both within and outside of Indigenous communities.
This work is fundamentally about expanding our collective understanding about what law is and creating pathways of communication across different legal traditions.
Jessica loves her job because she knows that the work she is doing matters to the communities she collaborates with. Although it is some of the most challenging work she has ever done, because it tests her intellect and worldview on a daily basis, it is ultimately the most gratifying and inspiring work she could imagine. Jessica is a settler with Jewish and Irish ancestry, so she approaches this work with open-mindedness and humility. She is motivated by the desire to contribute to creating a more equitable system by rectifying the injustices of colonization and building relationships of mutual respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
The field of Indigenous law is just beginning to open up.
There is so much work to be done and the opportunities to get involved are ever-expanding.
If you are someone who is interested in pursuing this type of work, here is Jessica’s advice to you:
- Have the courage and flexibility to jump into an area of law that is not yet well-defined and is ever-changing
- Bring your own perspective, acknowledge your positionality, and be open to having your worldview and frame of reference constantly challenged (especially as settlers, but even as Indigenous people from different legal traditions doing research in communities with which you are not familiar)
- Take the time to create meaningful relationships and connections with communities
- Do things in a humble and respectful manner (this is true for any job in the legal profession)