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Reflections on RELAW: The role of stories in law

June 15, 2016

West Coast is excited to launch the Revitalizing Indigenous Law for Land, Air, and Water (RELAW) project in partnership with the Indigenous Law Research Unit (ILRU) at the University of Victoria. RELAW is a pilot project with the aim of supporting First Nations in their process of revitalizing, applying and enforcing Indigenous laws in relation to a contemporary aspect of environmental governance. My name is Georgia Lloyd-Smith. In this post, I reflect on my experience researching Secwepemc law with ILRU and the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council. My hope is that this reflection will give insight into the work we will be doing in the RELAW project. Because stories are of central importance, I will begin with a story.

For a story about our first RELAW retreat, click here.


Sage brush covers the rolling desert mountains. The clear blue lakes stand out against the arid landscape. They are precious and life-giving. On a recent trip with the Indigenous Law Research Unit (ILRU) team, I had the opportunity to explore the beautiful Secwepemc territory and to speak with inspiring people about Secwepemc laws. One experience stands out among them all. At a community meeting in Skeetchestn Indian Band, Kukpi7 (Chief) Ron Ignace and Dr. Marianne Ignace shared the story of the Trout Children and spoke of the law contained within it. 

Trout Children tells the story of a young woman who marries a handsome Trout man and lives with the Trout people on the bottom of the lake. As her Trout children grow up, they become curious about the world above water. They venture ashore and are transformed back into humans by their Grandmother. Against his Grandmother’s advice, the Trout boy climbs a tree to retrieve his hunting arrow and enters the Sky world. There, he meets his Grandfather and uses his skin to become a successful hunter. His jealous family members find his Grandfather’s skin, destroy it, and turn his Grandfather into fog.

Pípsell (Jacko Lake) the site of Trout Children and the Ajax mine proposal (Photo: Bonnie Leonard).

The rich version of the story told by late elder Charlie Draney from Skeetchestn can tell us much about Secwepemc laws. It speaks of relationships between humans and animals, responsibilities to the natural world, lessons from the water cycle, rights to safety and family ties. And we can ask it specific questions. For example, what is the process for making decisions that affect a community? This story tells us of the importance of inter-generational relationships and the need to consider future generations in today’s decisions.

Shuswap Nation Tribal Council and ILRU partnership (Sally Hunter)

While in Secwepemc territory, I learned how this story has taken on special significance today. The lake described in the Trout Children story has been traced to Pípsell (now known as Jacko Lake) - one of the few life-giving lakes near Kamloops. The tree that Trout boy climbs to reach the Sky world was removed to give way to a road.  Now, the Ajax mine project – an open-pit copper and gold mine - has been proposed right next to Pípsell. The federal government is conducting an environmental assessment (EA) of the project and has asked local First Nations to submit evidence on the impacts of the project. In addition to submitting evidence to the federal EA process, the Stk’emplupsemc Te Secwepemc Nation (SSN) wanted to make a decision about the project based on its own law. So the SSN chose to create its own assessment of the project grounded in Secwepemc law. They turned to the laws contained within the Trout Children story and others to inform their assessment process. For example, because of the importance of inter-generational responsibilities reflected in the stories, the SSN process includes past and future generations as key factors in deciding about the project.

Ajax mine proposal next to Pípsell, near Kamloops (Image source: CEAA)

The SSN Ajax mine assessment is just one example of a broader trend of First Nations across B.C. grounding their decision-making processes in their own laws. Other examples include the Tsleil-Waututh Nation's Independent Assessment of the Kinder Morgan pipeline and tankers project, the Save the Fraser Declaration, and a variety of land use codes. We are encouraged to see these examples of Indigenous law revitalization. At the same time, we know that it requires a lot of time, resources, and expertise to revitalize Indigenous legal orders and to engage deeply with Indigenous legal principles.

Shuswap Nation Tribal Council and ILRU team during our recent visit to Secwepemc territory
(Photo: Sally Hunter).

This is where the brilliant minds at ILRU come in. ILRU is a dedicated research unit based out of the University of Victoria Faculty of Law which engages with the full scope of specific, practical and theoretical Indigenous law issues. ILRU has been working tirelessly, across the country, to establish the idea that Indigenous law exists and should be taken seriously just as any other legal tradition. RELAW is a partnership between ILRU and WCEL, based on a shared understanding 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.

Check out ILRU’s amazing videos here, including “Indigenous Law: An introduction”, “Gender and Sexuality”, and “Tough Questions”. An in-depth discussion guide is available here.

The ILRU team continues to create innovative ways to tackle the difficult questions around Indigenous law revitalization. For example, Dr. Val Napoleon (Director) and Dr. Hadley Friedland (Research Director) developed a tool that uses a combination of traditional stories and community voices to access, analyze and articulate Indigenous legal principles. Using the methodology, we ask questions of the stories. For example, what does this story tell us about the relationship between humans and the natural world? Or who makes the decision in this story? We look for the law in the stories and by engaging with many stories, we begin to see the broader legal principles take shape. Then we talk to people in the community to understand how these stories are interpreted in modern times.

ILRU Director Dr. Val Napoleon and Research Director Hadley Friedland discussing Indigenous law
(Photo: Hadley Friedland).

Cue RELAW. In its pilot year, six Nations across B.C – Fort Nelson, Gitga’at, Tsawout, Tsilhqot’in, St’at’imc, and Secwepemc – will be participating in RELAW. Each Nation has identified a specific environmental issue they are currently facing and would like to address using their own Indigenous law. At its core, RELAW is a capacity building project. Over the summer, community researchers from each Nation will be using the invaluable ILRU methodology to explore legal principles related to the natural world. In the fall, community facilitators will design a community-based, deliberative process to develop a “legal instrument” that addresses the identified environmental problem. Finally, next spring, facilitators will develop a plan for enforcing the Indigenous “legal instrument” to make sure that it has some practical importance.

RELAW team at Cheakamus Centre for first retreat (Photo: Alice William)

As I reflect on RELAW and its importance today, I am taken back to my time in Secwepemc territory. I smell sage warmed by the sun’s rays. I see Pípsell - that beautiful life-giving lake. I hear the Trout Children story and ponder about the laws that exist within it. And I think about the beautiful full circle of law – the laws connected to the land, contained within this story, are being used to shape the land’s future.

By Georgia Lloyd-Smith, Staff Counsel