British Columbia

Vancouver law firm seeks legal grounding of unwritten Indigenous laws

Vancouver's West Coast Environmental Law is working alongside several First Nations to uncover ancestral laws and build them into Canada's legal system.

Ancestral laws are foundational to the Canadian Constitution, says RELAW project leader

The St’át’imc Nation is one of several cohorts involved in the project that attempts to bring their ancestral laws into a modern legal framework. (RELAW)

A Vancouver law firm is trying to give unwritten Indigenous laws more legal sway.

The project, spearheaded by West Coast Environmental Law, rewrites traditional and often forgotten ancestral laws into modern legal terms. Maxine Matilpi, the project's lead, says the goal is to give First Nations greater voice in legal decisions that affect their communities.

"There's a real need for it," said Matlipi. "There are lots of communities that have environmental issues that they're wanting to address, and sometimes going through the whole court process is huge and onerous."

She says Indigenous laws are not to be confused with Aboriginal laws, which are written within the Canadian justice system and pertain to treaty rights and enforcement.

In contrast, Indigenous laws predate the Canadian Constitution, said Matlipi, meaning they have less legal standing. They are unique to different communities, and are often depicted in traditional narratives, language, song, and dances.

Uncovering Indigenous law

The group is currently working with several First Nations including St'át'imc Nation, Shuswap Nation Tribal Council, and Tsilhqot'in Nation, to uncover some of their old Indigenous laws.

The process involves going through traditional stories, and extracting a series of legal principles from them. The principles are rewritten into a Canadian legal framework, which, for example, could be used to create a formal environmental policy that protects their resources.

Ideally, the policies would be enforceable on the ground, says Matlipi.

But she admits there's been some areas criticism.

"We recognize that the methodology that we're using might not be perfect, and is within a colonial construct — but it's a start."

The group recently opened their doors to a new cohort of clients in hopes of expanding the current pool of five.

"It's a year long process, and a pretty exciting opportunity to deepen community based capacity to articulate indigenous law and to work together on some pretty important stuff."

With files from CBC's Radio West

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: Vancouver firm seeks legal grounding of unwritten Indigenous laws