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Revitalizing Indigenous Law for Land, Air and Water: The Cheakamus Retreat

June 18, 2016

The pond was calm, the forest lush and green. I sat down on the boardwalk, closed my eyes, and breathed in the fresh spring air of Squamish territory. I felt grateful for the 5-day retreat ahead of us at the Cheakamus Centre. Cheakamus is a Squamish word meaning “people of the fish weir.” Later that afternoon our team at West Coast Environmental Law would meet the community leaders who had applied and been selected to participate in the Revitalizing Indigenous Law for Land, Air, and Water (RELAW) Project. RELAW is the embodiment of a long time dream for all of us involved to engage deeply with Indigenous laws that relate to the natural world. RELAW is a new initiative that aims to deepen First Nations’ capacity to engage in the process of revitalizing, applying and enforcing their own laws to contemporary environmental problems and proactive land and resource decision-making.

This retreat marked the first of three retreats over a year-long period, and many days of learning and work we will have together over the next 12 months. The workshops over the week at Cheakamus focused on questions such as: What is Indigenous law? Why is the work of revitalization so important at this time in our history? How can Indigenous laws be articulated, applied and enforced to create a healthier environment?

River at Cheakamus

River at Cheakamus

As I sat on the boardwalk I thought of the participants representing their First Nations who would soon be arriving from across British Columbia, each facing environmental challenges in their territory. As I was carried away in these reflections there was a ruckus in the trees across the pond. The squawking was desperate, and urgent in tone. Raven swooped from the dense greenery. A perfect blue egg was securely held in his black beak. Raven dashed across the pond and flew into the forest on the other side, followed by screaming Robin. It was too late. After an energetic chase, her baby was gone. The drama ended with Robin flying back across the pond to the spot Raven had darted from only moments earlier. I felt sad for Robin returning to her nest with one less egg than before. I thought of Raven returning to her own babies, having something to feed them. I had begun the retreat by trickster Raven teaching the cycle of life. “This will be hard work,” I thought as I walked from the pond back to the residence hall.

The formal opening of the RELAW retreat was a blanketing ceremony on Sunday evening, led by Robert Nahanee. Robert is a spiritual leader and elder of the Squamish Nation. The evening was set apart to begin the work well, grounded in ceremony. Maxine Matilpi (Kwakiutl, project lead for RELAW) created a warm and inviting place to learn. Robert welcomed us to the territory. One by one, we placed a blanket over each participant, and participants who were not able to arrive until the following morning were recognized then. Robert expressed the importance of doing this work grounded in the legal principles of love, safety, respect and support. The blanket is a symbol of these laws. Those who were blanketed include: Dean Billy (St’át’imc); Candice Charlie (Cowichan); Jessica Clogg (West Coast); Kerissa Dickie (Fort Nelson); Spencer Greening (Gitga’at); Shauna Johnson (Tsawout); Dave Nordquist (Secwepemc); Tracey Lawlor (Lower Similkameen) and Alice William (Tsilhqot’in).

Some of the RELAW paticipants

Some of the RELAW participants

Jess Asch and Simon Owen were generous in their presence and representation of the University of Victoria’s Indigenous Law Research Unit (ILRU). The ILRU is a partner of West Coast in this year-long RELAW project. The blanketing was concluded with the words of the witnesses who had been called at the start of the ceremony. Witnessing is a practice of Salish legal process. It provides an opportunity for chosen people who are present at an event to articulate what they observed at the conclusion of the ceremony. Rueben George (Tsleil-Waututh), June McCue (Ned'u'ten, West Coast Board of Directors), Kukpi7 Judy Wilson (Neskonlith, Union of BC Indian Chiefs Executive) and Valine Crist (Haida) all shared moving and encouraging words about our journey together. There were children, partners and parents present as well. Law can be enacted and learned in a family setting. When Jessica was blanketed, her youngest daughter went to her and tucked herself into the blanket as well. It was a beautiful reminder of the importance of trust and sharing.  

Forest Bathing in Squamish Territory

Forest Bathing in Squamish Territory

The days following involved various workshops. We discussed legal theory, case-briefed stories using the ILRU methodology, learned about application of Coast Salish legal principles through the Tsleil-Waututh Assessment of the Kinder Morgan Expansion Project from Rueben George and Eugene Kung (West Coast Staff Counsel), learned from Bonnie Leonard and Kelly Connor about the Secwepemc Nation’s work using stories as a source of Indigenous law, and did planning in our research teams. While everyone was simultaneously a teacher and learner, the discussions were led by West Coast team members Maxine, Jessica, Hannah Askew, Georgia Lloyd-Smith, Gavin Smith and myself. We talked around fires, danced, sang, told stories, learned from a 1000-year-old cedar tree and ate beautiful food over the course of the week.
 

Group chat in the forest

Group chat in the forest

1,000-year-old Cedar

A 1,000 year-old cedar

Moss on the Sky-Walk hike

Moss on the Sky-Walk hike

Those questions I reflected upon at the pond that first Sunday afternoon – what is Indigenous law? Why is the work of revitalization so important at this time in our history? How can Indigenous laws be articulated, applied and enforced to create a healthier environment? – were clarified.

We had a poster on the wall in the residence hall where various participants (including the children) wrote up answers on sticky-notes to the question: what is Indigenous law? It is a way of moving through the world, it is kind, intelligent, rules, it is holistic, ceremony, dreams, difficult, loving, and it is living.

One reason Indigenous law is especially important at this time in Canadian history is because there are many challenges facing First Nations. Routinely we are at the bottom of socio-economic indicators of well-being. Decolonization must include Indigenous peoples solving these challenges for ourselves alongside others, and our laws should act as a guide in this process (see Truth & Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action).

RELAW Logo by Kerissa Dickie

The RELAW logo Kerissa Dickie designed for use in her community of Fort Nelson

Indigenous law can be articulated by looking to stories, songs, dances, ceremonies, court transcripts, place names, elders, the land, knowledge-keepers, language etc. It can be applied through the proper decision-makers in each legal tradition taking responsibility and fulfilling their roles. It can be enforced when all people know what the laws are, and have an understanding of why they must be followed.

Water

Water

The retreat ended back at the water, where the event had started for me five days earlier. Alice William led us in a water ceremony. We asked the water for help in our journey of revitalizing Indigenous laws. We offered a gift to the water. I sang and drummed a song called Niibi Nagamo (Water Song), which I learned from the Anishinaabe water-walker and dear friend Sylvia Plain. We smudged. Just as the water gives life, we too left feeling the strength of the world around us. There is a lot of work to be done, and a lot of help, learning and beauty along the way.

By Lindsay Borrows, Articled Student