Extractive industries, climate change and population growth are just a few of the factors threatening water sources. Indigenous communities are uniquely affected by changes in the water, and are more likely to be on boil-water advisories. In many places people can no longer go out on the land and drink water straight from the streams. The health and abundance of fish have changed as water quality has decreased, which in turn affects Indigenous diets.
West Coast is working with Indigenous nations to articulate, revitalize and implement their traditional water laws. Colonial institutions often place Indigenous peoples as subjects of progressive water management and governance, and have yet to substantively leave space and realize Indigenous laws.
Indigenous laws are deeply connected to the water. As Danika Billie Littlechild explains:
When First Nations lose access to a sacred or traditional water source, they also lose access to the beings and spirits that inhabit that water source. This loss ripples out. Stories, songs, dances, and even Indigenous words related to or based in that water source are also lost. The foundational elements of Indigenous legal traditions and knowledge systems are therefore at risk.
Our work aims to ensure the beings, stories and worlds connected to the water remain healthy.
Fort Nelson First Nation
Fort Nelson First Nation, located in the Northern Rockies – in Treaty 8 territory in the northeast corner of BC – signed on to the RELAW project (Revitalizing Indigenous Law for Land, Air and Water) in order to create a water policy using their traditional laws as a foundation. The RELAW team collected literature and held interviews with community knowledge-holders. Through this work, they realized that the RELAW Project was also an opportunity to create a living document outlining the history and the culture of their unique community that could be used in both preservation and revitalization of their Indigenous way of being. A RELAW-themed art contest, focused on the depiction of the laws of land and nature, also encouraged community members to consider their own stories and intrinsic connection to the natural world around them.
St’át’imc First Nation
The St’át’imc tell stories of a time when Transformers travelled throughout the land, changing the landscape so it would sustain life. Many of the mountains, valleys, lakes, and rivers in St’át’imc territory were created by the Transformers. Today, the Nation is concerned that water is not as safe as it once was. With pressures from mining, logging, dams, and population growth in their territory, elders have expressed fears that they can’t drink water from the streams like they used to. Water levels and quality have also affected the salmon run on the Fraser River, which the St’át’imc have relied on for generations. Through the RELAW project, over 200 people have engaged with St’át’imc stories related to water and law. Under the direction of the St’át’imc Chiefs Council, the RELAW team is creating a water policy rooted in St’át’imc law.
Decolonizing Water Governance
West Coast is partnering with 14 other organizations in the Decolonizing Water Governance Project. This project’s long-term goal is to create a self-sustaining water and ecological monitoring program that will enhance the protection of water resources and strengthen Indigenous water governance in northern BC. West Coast is providing research and organizational support to contribute to the success of this project.