1 RELAW: Revitalizing Indigenous Law for Land, Air and Water | West Coast Environmental Law


RELAW: Revitalizing Indigenous Law for Land, Air and Water

In early March 2016, West Coast Environmental Law launched the RELAW Project. RELAW (“Revitalizing Indigenous Law for Land, Air and Water”) is supported and advised by the Indigenous Law Research Unit (“ILRU”) at the University of Victoria, Faculty of Law.

Indigenous law  – Indigenous peoples’ own laws – may be distinguished from Aboriginal law, which includes section 35 Aboriginal and Treaty rights under the Canadian Constitution, the Indian Act and related judicial decisions. West Coast and ILRU share the fundamental belief that Indigenous law is law, that Indigenous laws are part of living Indigenous legal orders, and that Indigenous law can and should be used on the ground today.

Indigenous laws can be, amongst other things, about family, property, or civil procedure. In recognition of the deep connections of Indigenous peoples to the lands and waters of their territories and their right and responsibility to manage them according to their respective laws and governance systems, the RELAW project has a particular focus on aspects of Indigenous legal orders related to lands and resources management. Learning from traditional narratives and case studies, participants are gaining skills and knowledge to assist their nations in the process of revitalizing and applying Indigenous law to contemporary environmental problems and proactive land and resource decision-making.

We understand the process of articulating, revitalizing and applying Indigenous law to be collaborative and deliberative, and we are committed to deepening community-based capacity to engage in this process. Participating Indigenous nations are working with community researchers and West Coast lawyers to develop a written summary of legal principles related to environmental governance and land and resources for their nation.

The RELAW team during a retreat at the Cheakamus Centre in Squamish Territory (Photo: Alice William)
Pípsell (Jacko Lake) in Secwepemc territory (Photo: Bonnie Leonard)
Photo: Sťáťimc elders (Photo: Lindsay Borrows)
Early this year, we sent out a Community Call-out (over our website and through our networks) inviting BC First Nations to submit an Expression of Interest. As we received more applicants than our limited capacity could accommodate, we were forced to choose between some very compelling applications.

Our first cohort involves six Indigenous peoples from around the province – Secwepemc (Shuswap Nation Tribal Council), St’át’imc, Fort Nelson, Tsilhqo’tin, Tsawout, and Gitga’at – each with different a different project and focus. For example, one nation is focused on marine planning, another on the protection of groundwater; one is developing plans for management of a tribal park, and another is working on an environmental assessment. Each of these projects will be based on the people’s own laws and decision-making processes.

In May, community researchers had an opportunity to meet and work with each other as well as lawyers from West Coast. At this retreat, participants met to share ideas and offer and receive support as we began working with ILRU methodology, case-briefing stories and learning to prepare a legal synthesis made up of foundational principles within the stories to consider responsibilities, rights, standards and relationships.

The next stage of RELAW will be developing plans for a practicum for each nation, which will mean lots of community outreach, dialogue and deliberation. As we do this work, we envision a future of fully implemented and enforced Indigenous laws, when the land and waters are treated with the love and respect illustrated in the ancient stories we’ve been working with. More and more, we’ve come to see how the planet needs what Indigenous laws offer: strong legal principles that can lead us toward a more healthy and beautiful world. 

Photo left: Horseback trip in Tsilhqot’in territory (Alice William), Photo right: Hand games at Fort Nelson Annual Celebration (Georgia Lloyd-Smith)


Our Environmental Decision Making work is funded by the West Coast Environmental Law Research Foundation