Michael Coyle earns Deans Research Fellowship for project on The Recognition of Indigenous Laws and its Implication for Canadian Federalism

April 11, 2023

Professor Michael Coyle

Professor Michael Coyle has been selected as the recipient of the 2023 Dean’s Research fellowship for his project entitled The Recognition of Indigenous Laws and its Implications for Canadian Federalism: Mapping the Options for Respectful Co-existence.

The project will build upon his recent research on legal pluralism and the recognition of Indigenous laws. Grounded in the belief that formal recognition of Indigenous legal orders is crucial to reconciliation, Coyle’s research will propose a menu of possible models for the co-existence of Indigenous and state laws.

“I think we've learned in Canada, that passing laws to regulate every aspect of Indigenous people's lives hasn't worked,” said Coyle. “The issue of inherent Indigenous jurisdiction has arisen repeatedly in conflicts on the ground about decision-making about proposed developments on Indigenous lands. There is…an academic, legal and political imperative to begin to reconcile competing claims of jurisdiction between the state and Indigenous peoples.”

Coyle explains that his approach recognizes the diversity of Indigenous cultures and laws and the right of Indigenous peoples to determine which laws they want to be governed by. He adds that his work is not to record or interpret Indigenous laws or advise Indigenous communities on their own self-governance but to instead be a bridge between the two systems.

“In my own research, I situate myself as a representative of the settler treaty peoples who seeks to offer and to analyze pathways for reconciliation consistent with the principles of treaty partnership,” said Coyle, adding that he views his work as “finding ways that we can step back and leave space for Indigenous communities to make decisions for themselves.”

Coyle’s research interests in Indigenous rights and dispute resolution theory were born during the decade he spent working for the former Indian Commission of Ontario beginning in the late 1980s. His first project was writing about Indigenous traditions in criminal law and whether they could be used to reduce the over incarceration of Indigenous people. There, Coyle went on to become Director of Mediation where he mediated many land claim disputes between the federal and provincial governments and First Nations in Ontario.

“I've had this continuing involvement with trying to find fair ways of sorting out disputes between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous governments in Canada,” said Coyle. “As a mediator, I was asked to try to help them find creative ways to address a past injustice without creating new injustice. I became passionate about [finding ways to] correct some of the injustices that were done [to Indigenous peoples].”

Coyle hopes this project will be a useful framework for developing new approaches to the recognition and implementation of Indigenous laws in Canada. He believes this work could open the doors to new areas of study and hopes it “will have a significant scholarly impact on a legal, political and sociological field that lies at the heart of the decolonization challenges facing Canada today.”

Later in the research process, Coyle will seek out Indigenous communities, and Indigenous legal scholars and lawyers for input on his analysis. In future, he hopes to produce a collaborative, edited publication involving Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars that presents a range of possible approaches to the recognition of Indigenous legal orders in Canada.

The Dean’s Fellowship, valued at $10,000, was established by Western Law Dean Erika Chamberlain in 2018 to enhance the faculty’s research program and engage students in cutting-edge research. Previous winners include Professors Ryan Liss, Jacob Shelley, Wade Wright and Claire Houston.