The sun setting over the ocean on We Wai Kai territory. Photo by Mya Van Woudenberg

Better recognizing Indigenous legal orders

A reflection on our time spent with the Indigenous Law Research Unit 


This May, our team was fortunate to attend an Indigenous Laws Workshop run by the Indigenous Law Research Unit (ILRU), as made possible by the MakeWay Foundation. The focus of these days was to address how the environmental sector can work in a more respectful relationship with Indigenous legal orders. This includes beginning to see and recognize Indigenous law operating around us.

We are so thankful for the wealth of knowledge that was shared and the thoughtful discussions still being provoked by these workshops. We raise our hands to the ILRU, MakeWay Foundation and the many hands who helped make this possible. It was an important step in our organization’s ongoing and committed journey to better uphold Indigenous laws. 

The ILRU team were great guides in fostering these important conversations. Housed in the University of Victoria’s Faculty of Law, the ILRU is an academic research institute dedicated to the revitalization of Indigenous law and governance. They believe Indigenous laws need to be taken seriously as laws. And their vision is for Indigenous laws to be living and in use on the ground, and to be researched, taught and theorized about just as other great legal traditions of the world are (you can learn more about ILRU here). We at Sierra Club BC are committed to supporting them in this vision and recognize that we have an important role to play within the environmental sector.

We’d like to offer our thanks to Brad and Margot Assu who opened these workshops in a good way by guiding us around the Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre. Brad is a direct descendent of Chief Billy Assu who is considered one of the most respected potlatch chiefs in Ligwilda’xw history. It was an honour to witness the Kikasuw~the sacred Potlatch collection and regalia, and hear the stories they carry.

We are also grateful to Chief Dave Knox (Kwakiutl) and Rueben George (Tsleil-Waututh) for sharing their insights throughout these sessions as grounded in their own traditions. These conversations added even more wealth to the days.  

Acknowledging our past and our path forward

As an environmental charity and predominantly settler-run organization, Sierra Club BC must grapple with our 50+ year history of conservation work — filled with highs and lows — which has caused harm to many Indigenous communities. Often, these failures came from our inability to see or recognize Indigenous governance and only uphold the Canadian legal system. For example, in many cases parks were created without the consent of Indigenous Nations affected and communities were forcibly separated from their lands. This violated the human rights of Indigenous peoples and the ecosystems themselves who were shaped by Indigenous management practices over millennia. 

As we move forward, we at Sierra Club BC are striving to do things differently and work to better respect and uphold Indigenous legal orders. It is only through this transformation that we can help create a more just and life-sustaining world for all beings – both human and non-human. This workshop is an important step along that journey.

We recognize that better seeing and respecting Indigenous legal orders is not something that happens overnight, especially as we’re so used to moving within the Canadian legal system. As an organization we have much to learn, unlearn and reimagine. This is not a single stop, but an ongoing process and we are committed to taking these lessons forward with us. Once again, we offer our thanks to the ILRU and MakeWay Foundation for making this transformative experience possible. We can’t wait to see all that blooms from the seeds planted during these sessions. 

Featured image by Mya Van Woudenberg.