In its ongoing work to enhance recognition and respect for W̱SÁNEĆ peoples’ rights, the W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council is making progress on the enormous task of revitalizing W̱SÁNEĆ Natural Laws. 

W̱SÁNEĆ Natural Laws come from the Creation Stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. These Creation Stories and Natural Laws have survived through multiple epidemics, the oppressive residential school system, and the criminalization of W̱SÁNEĆ cultural practices. While the colonial government tried to eliminate SENĆOŦEN and W̱SÁNEĆ culture, W̱SÁNEĆ people resisted and continue to live according to these teachings.

Image: CBC https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/residential-day-school-survivors-who-lost-language-and-culture-seek-redress-1.3032862

J,SIṈTEN, John Elliott, a respected elder and teacher at the Tribal School for over 30 years, explains,

“I’ve been working on this project for 41 years. We recorded [Creation] stories on cassette tapes,” he laughs. “We worked with 18 fluent SENĆOŦEN speakers until they were all gone.”

In 1984 the Saanich Indian School Board adopted the SENĆOŦEN Alphabet developed by Dave Elliott to help preserve the SENĆOŦEN language and history. In 2018, the SENĆOŦEN dictionary was published, preserving 12,000 words. 

Illustration of The Legend of ȽÁU, WELṈEW̱ by J,SIṈTEN (John Elliott).

The work that W̱SÁNEĆ Elders have done to protect SENĆOŦEN and capture W̱SÁNEĆ Creation Stories has illuminated W̱SÁNEĆ Natural Laws and provided clear direction on principles, values and how to live a good life. These principles are often in direct conflict with Canadian Laws and norms. 

Tsawout’s Ph.D. Law Student, Robert Clifford, in his interview with the WLC earlier this year, elaborates,

“You can’t cram Indigenous Law into Canadian Law . . . for instance, the notion of sovereignty, a common concept underpinning Canadian law is a largely European construct . . . sovereignty tends to be actualized as supreme authority over nature, for instance. Where for us, we have a responsibility to care for the Islands because they aren’t separate from us. In our creation story, they are our ancestors or ‘Relatives of the Deep’.

WLC Director of Operations, Gord Elliott agrees: Our Natural Laws govern our people and originate from stories where people were transformed into living beings such as animals, fish and whale species, trees, even winds and some stars etc. We refer to the life in the natural world as relatives, brothers and cousins. They are our elder relatives and we have a sacred relationship with them. That’s in stark contrast to the notion of management regimes.” 

Elliott continues, “It’s apparent we need to change our relationship with Nature. We’re seeing a decline in the Salmon population and almost all other species of fish. Humans managing the environment based on numbers isn’t working.”

The data backs Elliott up. A recent report from the United Nations found the rate of species extinction is accelerating faster than ever before in human history.  The report states “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”

Seals lounge on rocks in The Strait of Juan de Fuca

Reinstating Natural Laws is part of the WLC’s Nation Rebuilding mandate. 

So far, the WLC has allocated substantial funds to Nation Rebuilding. Part of the Nation Rebuilding project is to continue what was started 40 years ago: meeting with and accumulating stories from W̱SÁNEĆ elders. Once an audio recording is made, the stories are then transcribed and translated into English. 

In addition to the funds already allocated to Nation Rebuilding, the WLC received a grant from the First People’s Cultural Foundation, which resulted in an additional budget dedicated to continuing the capture, translation and transcription of stories and Natural Laws. 

“Our goal is to ensure there is a repository [for W̱SÁNEĆ Natural Laws] to ensure accessibility while still maintaining appropriate respect for the sacred.” Elliott explains “Originally, SENĆOŦEN, was considered too sacred to write down. We almost lost it.”

As well as working on capturing and preserving the laws, the WLC is dedicated to ensuring Natural Laws are embedded and upheld in agreements with Colonial organizations such as Federal and Provincial Governments, DFO, CRD, the Victoria Airport Authority and Parks Canada, to name a few.  Ensuring adherence to the Natural Laws directly informs decisions the Leadership Council makes on not-yet-decided issues such as the proposed National Marine Conservation Area Reserve.

As a result of this additional funding, the WLC’s Marine Use Planner, Shauna Johnson, now has additional resources to resume the Natural Laws work she began in 2016 as the Land Use Manager at Tsawout. 

“There was a call for First Nations to articulate their Natural Laws, so we gathered the published Creation stories and analyzed them using a specific methodology, drawn from the work of Val Napoleon and Hadley Friedland; two First Nations women at the forefront of Indigenous and Aboriginal Law,” Johnson explains. 

At the time, Johnson researched and analyzed the stories through the lens of the questions: How do we protect the Marine Environment? How do we protect Douglas Treaty Rights?

Johnson’s research yielded 50 stories that would help meet the criteria of helping to answer these difficult questions. Then the stories were reviewed in aggregate and further questions were asked: who makes decisions and when? Who is involved and when? How do we apply these learnings to real-life situations, like Marine use plans? A framework was developed and a report was almost finished before the project’s funding dried up. 

Johnson reflects, “There wasn’t time to do proper engagement.” Now, 3 years later, Johnson as part of her community engagement mandate at the WLC has the resources to finalize the report. “The hope is we can use what I learned with that project to ensure Natural Laws are embedded in the current projects we’re working on.” 

The WLC is dedicated to recovering, restoring and reinstating Natural Laws for the purposes of embedding them in activities within the territory.  The work is ongoing. “It’s no small task” Elliott remarks in what is decidedly an understatement.

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Our Natural Laws govern our people and originate from stories where people were transformed into living beings such as animals, fish and whale species, trees, even winds and some stars etc. We refer to the life in the natural world as relatives, brothers and cousins. They are our elder relatives and we have a sacred relationship with them. That’s in stark contrast to the notion of management regimes.”