Eva Ottawa submits a thesis on opikihawasowin

Posted on Thursday, September 16, 2021

While summer was in full swing and most of us were basking in the sun, Professor Eva Ottawa was defending her master’s thesis, Awactenamakanicic e opikihakaniwitc — Development of the customary code for child movement among the Atikamekw Nehirowisiwok of Manawan [translation]

For more than an hour, the master’s candidate, supervised by Professor Aimée Craft of the Common Law Section, summarized her research project of more than 100 pages, which situates opikihawasowin within the Quebec civil law system, and answered questions from committee members: professors Naiomi Metallic from Dalhousie University (member of the Ordre du mérite of the Civil Law Section) and Gina Starblanket from the University of Calgary, as well as Réjeanne Flamand, member of the Atikamekw of Manawan. Professor Graham Mayeda (Common Law Section) chaired the session. After a wait that must have seemed interminable to the researcher, the committee declared her thesis to be accepted.

Professor Ghislain Otis, Canada Research Chair on Legal Diversity and Aboriginal Peoples, who is familiar with Ottawa’s research and attended her defence, praised the innovative nature of her project.

“With this thesis, Eva Ottawa makes a remarkable contribution to the knowledge of a fundamental aspect of the Atikamekw Nehirowisiwok legal system. Her work also constitutes a milestone in the development of research on Indigenous legal theory. In addition to being another step on the road to authentic self-determination, this thesis paves the way for dialogue between legal cultures.” - G. Otis

Professor Sophie Thériault, vice-dean (academic) in the Civil Law Section and specialist in Indigenous law, agrees. “Eva Ottawa’s research paper, much of which is in the language of the Atikamekw of Manawan, makes an original and essential contribution to knowledge about Atikamekw Nehirowisiwok law on the movement of children, and more generally, about the foundations of this legal system.The thesis and the publications that will ensue will provide invaluable tools to better understand Indigenous legal systems.”

Decolonize your mind

In 2016–2017, while following parliamentary activities on the recognition of customary adoption in Quebec (Bill 113), requiring the designation of a competent authority to issue the certificate of customary adoption, Ottawa realized that is was important to assist competent authorities in their role.

Although very familiar with the custom (her own parents had taken charge of nimisak, “my older sisters”), she nonetheless found it difficult to situate opikihawasowin within the civil law system of Quebec. With this background, she set out to document the customary practice. She conducted 17 interviews in Atikamekw Nehiromowin before translating the transcripts into French. Despite the transcription, it was necessary for Ottawa to analyze the data in the Atikamekw Nehiromowin language, which also meant confronting her own biases:

“I have to humbly admit that I needed to decolonize my own mind to understand and interpret the empirical data. I had to check the automatic reflex, which had become unconscious over time, of wanting to validate legality from the perspective of emtcikociwic, 'those who arrived by boat’; of seeking some kind of approval, of wanting to reassure myself that the result can fit within the emtcikociwic legal system.” - Eva Ottawa

The woman who belongs to the land of the Nehapiskak clan

The data she collected during interviews re-immersed Ottawa in the universe of the Atikamekw Nehirowisiwok. She was deeply moved by the kaskeritamowina (knowledge) she encountered in her research. She intensively questioned how to interpret the data while respecting the Nehirowisiwin context and worldview. The most difficult part was transcribing the data into an external framework in which ontological and epistemological issues are treated differently. Among the Atikamekw Nehirowisiwok, ontology and epistemology are interrelated and interconnected. For example, the concept of adoption is translated as opikihawasowin: to take care of, guide, support to maturity, and ensure the well-being of a child, to love and cherish them and to provide all the instruction needed to allow the child to achieve autonomy, as well as the traditional teachings. In her role of interpreter, Ottawa therefore decided to position herself as an atikamekw nehirowisiw iskwew nehapiskak itekera, a woman who belongs to the land of the Nehapiskak clan.

“I went back and forth between the data and my cultural background. Through this entire process, I was able to identify notions and concepts related to awactenamakanicic e opikihakaniwitc, the customary legal system devoted to child autonomy. This research gave me an appreciation of the depth of kaskeritamowina.” - Eva Ottawa


What comes next

Notawi (paternal) Gérard, Eva Ottawa and nikawi (maternal) Mariette at her 2002 graduation ceremony, Université Laval. Personal collection.

According to Ottawa, who loves working and speaking with people to hear what they have to say, her master’s thesis serves as a way to further assist and sustain the preservation and appreciation of legal traditions among the Atikamekw Nehirowisiwok of Manawan. “Naming customary legal notions and concepts in Atikamekw Nehiromowin will certainly allow them to develop their own governance in the area of childhood that will better meet their needs, expectations and aspirations.”

The researcher wants to explore a number of areas in the coming years, such as inheritance rights or the rules of consanguinity among the Atikamekw Nehirowisiwok of Manawan. “I see this research as a beginning. The findings show that there are three options or regimes available to parents when it comes to care of children: awactenmakanicic e opikihakaniwitc, the customary legal system devoted to child autonomy; customary adoption as certified by the competent authority; and finally, full adoption according to the legal regime in Quebec. Opikihawasowin is a widespread practice in the Manawan community, and it would be worthwhile to identify the impact or effects of the recognition of customary adoption in a few years.My goal with this thesis was to assist the community’s competent authority. It offers a tool to carry out the verifications of compliance set out in the Civil Code of Quebec, and means that the customary effects can be registered in the customary adoption certificate. Other Indigenous communities and groups will certainly be able to draw inspiration from this work,” says Ottawa.




Examples of terms in Atikamekw Nehiromowin and English

From the thesis: Appendix I — Glossary of words in Atikamekw Nehiromowin

Awacic(ak) Child(ren)
Awactenamakanicic Little being of light

An orphaned child who is taken care of by an adoptive parent

Kokom Grandmother
Kokominook “Circle of kokoms,” matriarch
Misiwe otenak Community (adjective)

Younger brother or sister of a sibling

Nimocom Grandfather
Ntata Father
Ntcotco Mother
Okawi, Otawi Maternal, paternal
Okominan, Omocominan Grandmother, grandfather
Onikihikok, Witcicanak Familial term
Onikihikonan Original parents
Otapakonaw The taking back of the child by the original parent



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