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Background on RELAW Learning Partnerships

Indigenous nations participating in RELAW projects have access to free legal services and co-learning opportunities for community members focused on approaches to researching, applying and enforcing Indigenous law. Participating in a RELAW project enables Indigenous nations to engage with their laws in a proactive way – getting ahead of regulatory processes or legal cases led by others.

Developing a RELAW Project

Indigenous nations interested in developing a RELAW project may contact West Coast at any time. We will explore what your goals are and whether our legal team has the right capacity and expertise to contribute to your vision for Indigenous law revitalization. Our goal is to build a relationship based on reciprocity and mutual learning.

We recognize that Indigenous peoples are the experts on their own laws, and that working together requires lawyers to show up with humility and a commitment to listening and learning. Our lawyers have chosen a non-profit law practice where they can use their legal skills to advance environmental protection and Indigenous rights, and we aim to work together in a way that enhances knowledge and on-the-ground change sought by both parties.

The intentions, goals and responsibilities of each party in a RELAW project are set out in a Learning Partnership Agreement that guides our work together.

Does our nation need a RELAW lawyer?

Indigenous laws and legal orders have existed for millennia and are lived today on the land, in language, in art, in traditional governance, and in ceremony. Many aspects of Indigenous law revitalization don’t require a lawyer.

However, involving a lawyer can be valuable if a nation chooses to develop written expressions of its laws. There are a variety of reasons why Indigenous nations are choosing to do so. It may be a choice to record knowledge of old ones before they pass, to provide additional tools for teaching and learning, or with an eye to future legal proceedings.

Explicit, written legal direction can also help ensure companies and Crown governments know what is expected of them in Indigenous territories and assist with enforcement by Indigenous peoples. Examples of written expressions of law include land use or marine plans, and written laws about things like impact assessment, water stewardship or Indigenous protected areas.

Through RELAW Projects, West Coast Environmental Law provides free legal services and co-learning opportunities to Indigenous nations who wish to develop written expressions of their law through deliberative community-based processes grounded in the teachings from their stories and knowledge holders.

RELAW projects are undertaken collaboratively by a team made up of legally trained staff from West Coast and community-based staff or contractors from Indigenous nations. A year-long co-learning program provides mentorship and learning opportunities for team members.

What does a RELAW project involve?

Through RELAW, legally trained staff from West Coast work with community members selected by your nation to:

  • Draw on stories and the wisdom of elders to develop a summary of legal principles related to environmental governance and land and resources in your legal tradition;
  • Develop a written law, policy, agreement or plan grounded in your own laws and community dialogue, and/or
  • Develop and put into action a plan for implementing and enforcing your laws on a particular environmental or resource development issue.

It provides a strong foundation for a RELAW project when an Indigenous nation has a plan or vision of what is next for them – what will bring them closer to engaging with their own laws and ensuring their laws are respected. 

For West Coast, some current priority areas of focus for RELAW projects include: climate change, water governance, marine and coastal stewardship law, regional assessment and planning, and Indigenous protected and conserved areas.

Indigenous nations with an interest in developing a RELAW Learning Partnership Project should contact Maxine Matilpi, RELAW Program Lead at mmatilpi@wcel.org or 1-800-330-WCEL (ext. 226). Intake of new RELAW projects will generally be timed with the beginning of a new RELAW Co-learning cycle, but we recognize that nations will move forward when they are ready and we make efforts to be flexible on timing where necessary.  

Nations are welcome to nominate one or more individuals to participate in the RELAW Co-learning Program without undertaking a full RELAW Learning Partnership Project. You may wish to consider doing so if, for example:

  • you would like to learn more before exploring a RELAW project;
  • your nation is moving forward on work to revitalize its ancestral laws but does not require the support of a lawyer;
  • your nation is working on revitalizing its laws in areas other than environmental law such as criminal or children and families.

RELAW Learning Partnership Projects – Benefits to your community:

  • Training and legal resources to assist your nation in the process of revitalizing and applying your own laws to contemporary environmental decision-making and proactive land and resource management
  • Access to pro-bono legal research and advice from lawyers experienced with environmental, Aboriginal and Indigenous law
  • Preparation of a written summary of legal principles related to environmental governance and land and resources for use by your nation, based on stories, oral histories and other resources (if you have not already done so)
  • An opportunity to consider how your own laws and legal processes should guide environmental decision-making in your territory today, learning from traditional narratives (stories) and case studies
  • Training and mentoring for one or more community-based facilitators (community guides) to assist in the process of researching, articulating and applying your laws; community guides will be involved in analyzing traditional narratives, and co-lead the deliberative (community engagement) aspects of the work in the community, working with leaders, staff, elders, knowledge holders, community members and RELAW lawyers
  • A contribution of up to $40,000 per nation based on need and circumstances to offset the costs to the nation of the community guide(s)’ salary during the RELAW project, as well as travel and expenses associated with attending RELAW learning sessions and other expenses such as elders’ honoraria; more details about the community guide role may be found here
  • Development of plain language legal resources about your own Indigenous laws for land, air and water
  • A place of pride, demonstrating the strengths and knowledge within your community

What is required from your nation:

  • Logistical support for community meetings related to the project (e.g., meeting space, catering, transportation for elders, honoraria for meeting participation, billeting for resource people attending from outside the community if applicable)
  • Political, technical and logistical support for community guides and legal researchers (e.g., formal support from leadership for the project, office space, coordination with lands and resources/policy staff)
  • Salary costs beyond RELAW contributions. In our experience, there has been a significant added benefit where projects are able to involve two RELAW community guides to co-facilitate community processes and/or to split research and community engagement roles.
  • Identification of an issue related to water governance, marine and coastal stewardship law, regional assessment and planning or Indigenous protected areas that your nation wishes to address through the RELAW project, and an intention and commitment to engage in community decision-making processes to do so
  • Willingness to engage in a deep and deliberative process that sometimes might be hard (but rewarding) work

RELAW Learning Partnerships can provide benefits to all involved – including West Coast staff, who have the opportunity to learn from Indigenous partners about different ways of being and interacting with the world. These experiences allow our staff to deepen their understanding of Indigenous legal orders, and prepare West Coast Environmental Law to better support Indigenous nations in their legal efforts.

If you or your nation are interested in joining us in this work, please contact Maxine Matilpi at mmatilpi@wcel.org or 604-684-7378 ext. 226 (toll-free in BC: 1-800-330-WCEL ext. 226).