Good News Stories: Celebrating Positive Changes in Environmental Law
As part of our 25th Anniversary celebration, we’re sharing a series of Good News Stories that were inspired by the 2021 Research-a-thon. The goal of Research-a-thon 2021 was to share stories of positive change in public interest environmental law. The exercise virtually brought together students with environmental leaders who shared stories about public interest environmental successes, many of them involving ELC work. The topic was inspired in part by Filipino lawyer Antonio Oposa Jr., who spearheaded the Good Stories Movement with the intent of providing hope and inspiration to those who sometimes feel like environmental changes are not happening quickly enough (or at all.)
When the time is right, we’ll meet in person to celebration 25 years of training the next generation of public interest environmental lawyers and providing legal assistance to communities across BC. Until then, we hope you can share our celebratory spirit through these stories.
Good News Story #3: Walking on Two Legs
This Good News Story shares the inspiring story of Stk’emlupsemc Te Secwepemc Nation’s dedication to preserving and honouring the culturally significant site Pípsell through upholding Secwepemc Law and legal processes and their approach of Walking on Two Legs.
It is based on Research-a-thon students’ interview with Sunny LeBourdais. Currently the Director of Transformation with the Qwelminte Secwepemc, Sunny has worked for numerous communities in supporting the recognition of Secwepemc governance. She brings her education and experiences in ecology and education to assist people in understanding the intersections and relationships between Western and Indigenous knowledge.
The ELC has long worked with communities on mining issues, including those involving the now defunct Ajax Mine proposal.
When Stk’emlupsemc te Secwepemc (SSN) issued Honouring Our Sacred Connection to Pipsell, which was their cultural, economic and environmental impact review of a proposed mining project in their territory in 2017, it was rightly celebrated as groundbreaking and precedent-setting work in advancing Indigenous laws and Indigenous decision-making institutions. Part of the wider celebration was due to the result: the decision to refuse free, prior and informed consent to the proposed project. But Sunny LeBourdais, who acted as Project Coordinator for the SSN Project Assessment Process, emphasizes that the highlight of this good news story is firstly about the upholding of Secwepemc laws, traditions, and customs.
“In our recount of the Pipsell Assessment Process, we always focus on upholding the laws as the first priority and good story,” says Sunny, who has worked with the ELC and Uvic’s Indigenous Law Research Unit on a number of projects. “The decision to reject the mine was very secondary and was only done because of the foundation of law that exists there.”
She also notes that this wasn’t simply a process about saying no.
“Too often our processes are only seen as ones used to “block” projects. That is not what our law or process was about.”
While the SSN Assessment Process seemed like novel news at the time, the review was deeply grounded in a set of ancestral instructions captured in an ancestral legend.
“Although ancestors are not here right now, they have left so many laws, principles with us – you just have to look for them,” says Sunny. “It’s very inspiring to see your ancestors talking with you.”
In conducting the Pipsell Assessment, the SSN turned to the laws founded in Secwepemc Stsptekwll or “The Trout Children” telling, an ancestral legend tied to the specific areas that were part of the environmental assessment process for the Ajax mine near Kamloops.
In a Stk’emlupsemc te Secwepemc Nation Community Information Article, The Trout Children is recounted as “true tellings that connect the past and present of Secwepemcúlecw passing on the moral, spiritual, legal, social values laws and knowledge.”
The Trout Children story shares a number of life lessons, some of which boil down to this: if you don’t heed the good advice and directions you receive, often from Elders, you’re likely to end up in trouble. It goes even further: the Trout Children story and its lessons and the laws it asserts are intrinsically tied to the landscape and embedded in the land, the lake and the sky. For example, the tree mentioned in the ancient telling, still exists today.
“In looking to stand up Indigenous/Secwepemc law, the Trout Children telling was grounding them to law,” says Sunny. “The ancestors had laid the instructions: As long as you are keeping with the telling, you are doing the right thing. ‘The sky and land will turn on you if you don’t pay proper respect.’ “
Or, in the words of Elder Evelyn Camille in the video SSN produced, Honouring Our Sacred Connection to Pipsell- SSN Pipsell Decision Video, “Look after the land and the land will look after you.”
In addition to grounding the Pipsell Assessment process to upholding Indigenous laws tied to The Trout Children story, the SSN incorporated the principle of Walking on Two Legs in terms of respecting jurisdictions and authorities. Walking on Two Legs refers to using both western knowledge and science and Indigenous ways of knowing and being and having those two pieces come together. This meant, among other things, that BC and Canada were invited to participate in the SSN process and there were government-to-government tables, forums, agreements and communication, relationships that Sunny says built the success of the story.
“There was a recognition and revitalization of Indigenous law and telling, but also recognition by federal and provincial governments in terms of their decisions, such as denying an Environmental Assessment certificate to the company developing an open pit mine. It was respectful recognition and revitalization,” says Sunny.
“This was a win for Indigenous law. It constituted a recognition of the power in that authority and responsibility that’s been handed down,” says Sunny, who is currently the Director of Transformation with the Qwelminte Secwepemc, a collective of leadership, whose work includes an intern program for students learning about Walking on Two Legs and becoming practitioners in the reality of government-to-government agreements.
“Hopefully the Pipsell Assessment process will be an example to provide initiatives that can shift dialogue from Aboriginal Rights and Title to those Indigenous legal orders and Secwepemc law, what the ancestors have laid down. It is ongoing, an inspirational area of work.”
However, she notes, there is still work to be done. “Under the new Environmental Assessment Act in BC, ministers still hold the public interest test as something they’re going to run regardless of what decisions are made by the Indigenous jurisdictions.”
There will soon be another opportunity to witness this Indigenous-led process in action. In an October 2021 newsletter, Stk’emlupsemc te Secwepemc (SSN) announced they had reignited the Project Assessment process in order to review two major proposed expansions for the Highland Valley Copper Mine.
- Honouring Our Sacred Connection to Pipsell- SSN Pipsell Decision Video (https://vimeo.com/210983969)
- SSN Pipsell Decision (http://miningwatch.ca/sites/default/files/2017-03-ssnajaxdecisionsummary_0.pdf)
- Trout children (https://stkemlups.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/SSN-Community-Information-Article-3-Trout-Children.pdf)