Gradually, and Then All at Once: A Case Study in Ideological Succession

The e-mail came in on an April afternoon, almost exactly a year ago. It was from my Vice-Dean, the equivalent of a department head at the Canadian law school where I’ve worked as a professor since 2019.

“Do you have some time towards the end of the day, so that we can chat? I must unfortunately inform you that I’ve received many comments/complaints/preoccupations with respect to your property law class in the last few days.”

I had concluded some months earlier that it was inevitable that something like this would happen. In fact, I knew immediately what the complaints were about. What I didn’t know then was whether it would still be possible to resist them, and the extent to which my university, and my law school, had already been transformed over the past few years.

As in other countries, property law in Canada is mostly a dry, technical subject. However, it is also customary for professors to include a module on aboriginal law, which ties in neatly with in-class discussions of property rights over land. It is in this module that we discuss the long-established view, still reflected in the case law, that the English Crown affirmed its sovereignty over the land that is now Canada in the 18th century. It is to this original affirmation that all other land ownership in Canada can be traced – save and except for the rights of indigenous groups, which under certain circumstances are understood to have survived, and to “encumber,” the Crown’s affirmation of its own rights over the land.

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