FNFN & The RELAW Project (Revitalizing Indigenous Law for Land, Air & Water)


By Community Researcher, Kerissa Dickie

At its heart, the RELAW Project shows us how storytelling can help us preserve and celebrate our First Nations culture and history. By encouraging the knowledge holders within our community to share their stories—of our creation, of land stewardship, of our traditional ways of life—we preserve our identity and are reminded of the beauty, the brilliance, the resilience of our Elders and ancestors. We become stronger when we hold tight to the essence of who we have been, who we are, and who we will become. With one foot steady inside the teachings of our First Nations culture, we are better able to keep our balance—to stand tall—in the drastically diverse and ever advancing Canadian society of today.

The RELAW Project teaches us how embracing our roots offers limitless potential—starting with breaking our traditional stories down to their principles and using them in the creation and application of Canadian law. These laws can be used to benefit our community—to give credence to the use of our sacred beliefs in administering community programming, business, and interaction with the world around us.

Storytelling dates back to the beginnings of civilization, and still remains a vital tool in helping us understand who we are as human beings, what we do, and where we belong. The stories we are told help us learn, imagine and explore—and teach us empathy for others around us. In an increasingly white-washed digital world, First Nations’ oral history is being relegated as an ancient construct of the past—a problematic distraction in our assimilation to Western society—so the preservation of our stories needs to be made a priority by our community leaders.

The team of lawyers at West Coast Environmental Law, based in Vancouver, B.C.—reinforced by the support of the Indigenous Law Research Unit at the University of Victoria—have created the opportunity, training, and support each participating First Nations community requires to begin preserving traditional stories, and to understand the principles at their core and how they can be utilized in strengthening our day-to-day interactions with government and industry, especially in protecting our lands and environment. The first cohort of the RELAW Project, for 2016-2017, included six First Nations communities in B.C.:

·         Fort Nelson First Nation

·         Gitga′at First Nation

·         Tsilhqot′in First Nation

·         St′at′imc First Nation

·         Secwepmec (Shuswap Nation Tribal Council)

·         Tsawout First Nation

The six participating First Nations were looking at creating water policies, marine use plans, environmental codes of ethics, consent regimes, and environmental assessment practices all rooted in our own First Nations laws.


Project Overview

RELAW Cohort #1; 2016-2017

“The Community Researcher will lead FNFN’s involvement in the 2016-2017 ‘RELAW Project’, which aims to deepen community capacity to apply our traditional laws to environmental decision-making and land and resources management.” – Fort Nelson First Nation Project Facilitator Job Description

When initially reviewing the description for this pilot project, I learned that RELAW is a loose acronym for “Revitalizing Indigenous Law for Land, Air & Water” and that this position would involve gathering stories through interviews with community members—and then making laws from them, but I didn’t understand what the project actually entailed. The job description mentioned that this position would include learning about traditional laws, anthropology, environmental studies, land management, and greater awareness of FNFN’s culture and history. It sounded intimidating, but I felt reassured that my background in writing and research would help make the job more accessible, as this was detailed as being an asset for the preferred candidate. Fortunately my experience as a writer and in community-outreach secured my hiring, and I immediately set out for training at Cheakamus Centre, an eco-reserve near Squamish, BC, to meet the lawyers and project facilitators from West Coast Environmental Law (WCEL).

My job, as Community Researcher for Fort Nelson First Nation (FNFN), would be focused on the collection and organization of traditional stories and literature, which we would be breaking-down into their principles using Case Brief and Analysis Framework models. These principles, or traditional laws, would be transformed into the language and format of actual Canadian Law, and could be used to support the future of FNFN dealings and decision making.

While a small fraction of the FNFN community is of Cree heritage, FNFN is located in traditional Dene territory (known as Denendeh—“Land of the People”), and the majority of community members identify as Dene (South Slavey). I was unsuccessful in getting interviews from any of the Cree members, and the lack of their presence in this report reflects that, though I did include quotes from a few foundational Cree stories and from past interviews. 

With RELAW being a 12-month project, the first half of the year was focused on both literature research and interviews with community members. I conducted interviews with knowledge holders, ages 35-95, and was also able to tap into the rich reserve of past interview transcripts kept safe in the FNFN Lands and Resources Department vault from past community projects.

I was grateful to find applicable knowledge for RELAW from many different sources. I found some great Dene literature resources online, especially the published collections of George Blondin, a Dene knowledge holder and researcher, from Behchoko, NWT. His focus on culture, land stewardship, and medicine power, and his sources being countless Elders from all over Denendeh, made his contributions vital. Also of note was the website Yamoria, published by the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, and the Northwest Territories Department of Education, Culture and Employment (www.nwtexhibits.ca/yamoria). It introduced me to the Dene Laws and the hero Yamoria (“He Who Travels the World”) whom I would later learn is known as Yamateyah in FNFN territory. 

My favourite element as community researcher for the RELAW Project was the interviewing of community members. These interviews gave me the opportunity to visit with and ask questions of key knowledge holders in my community. I was welcomed into their homes, and was blessed with the assignment of formulating my own questions for them, touching not only on land stewardship, but also on the foundations of culture and spirituality. I left each interview feeling a deeper connection between myself and my community, a richer wisdom, and a new, fuller understanding of my identity as a Dene person. I realized that the RELAW Project is a vehicle in preserving First Nations culture—in creating real change—and that I was blessed to be a part of it.  

A close second, in my favourite RELAW experiences, was facilitating an Art Contest requesting artwork that reflected on our land and nature. Cash prizes, and the promise of community recognition, brought in seven pieces of artwork—in paint and pencil—and awarded top prizes to FNFN Artists Micheala Needlay (“Guardian Wolf”) and Preston Burke (“Beaver” and “Hawk”). Honourable mentions went to Curtis Dickie, Lester Didzena, and Shelene Needlay. Awarding artistry focused on FNFN culture felt very meaningful and also encouraged community members to think deeply about the importance of animals and nature to our people. 

[TO BE UPDATED SOON (Project End Date: May 15, 2017)]

To learn more about The RELAW Project, please click here to explore the RELAW section of the West Coast Environmental Law website