Revitalizing Indigenous Laws to Support Land and Marine Stewardship

March 1, 2015 (All day)

What do stories about animals have to do with First Nations’ authority and governance? Everything, as it turns out. Small groups of participants from several north coast First Nations are sitting around tables, listening to stories - there is one about a peace ceremony between two neighbouring Nations, another about the origin of the wolf crest, and yet another about an ensnared bear. Embedded in these stories, songs and oral histories are principles about modern governance and laws for being good stewards on the land. 

Thirty-five people gathered in Prince Rupert in November to learn how to look with fresh eyes at the stories they have heard all their lives and explore what they say about Indigenous laws.

Dr. Val Napoleon, Hadley Friedland, and a team of assistants from the Indigenous Law Research Clinic at the University of Victoria are teaching a new approach to identifying, articulating and applying legal obligations and principles to rebuild Indigenous governance, including resource stewardship and land and marine management.

The methods describe a way to analyse stories and oral histories systematically to find the important legal elements, such as: Who are the authoritative decision-makers? What are the legal processes and responses? How can these laws be used to respond to issues that communities are faced with today?

Participants in the workshop included hereditary leaders, resource stewardship managers and marine planners. Many talked about how frustrating it has been working on an uneven playing field in Canada. Val Napoleon described the challenge of confronting “unhelpful ideas such as First Nation peoples being lawless or not having laws capable of informing present day decisions and activities.” This, despite the fact that in most Indigenous communities throughout Canada, laws and governance institutions are very alive and actively inform community norms and behaviours. 

Many First Nations will use the approaches learned in the workshop to research and document the laws in their stories, songs, dances, and oral histories. Re-establishing their own laws and legal institutions is a key step to bring balance to the relationship between First Nations and provincial and federal government agencies. 

The Coastal Stewardship Network is currently working with several North Coast First Nations to secure funding for community-based Indigenous laws projects to take place over the next year. For more information about the Indigenous Law Research Clinic please visit their website. You can also listen to an interview with Dr. Val Napoleon on the CBC North.