An artistic rendition of a reading about Gitksan legal order, law, and legal theory. Image produced by Natalie A. Swift while studying Indigenous law at the University of Victoria.
An artistic rendition of a reading about Gitksan legal order, law, and legal theory. Image produced by Natalie A. Swift while studying Indigenous law at the University of Victoria.

By Natalie A. Swift

Each year forest practitioners and communities across Canada celebrate National Forest Week, an initiative that invites the public to learn more about forests and how they contribute to our livelihood. This year’s festivities are taking place September 18 to 24 under the theme, “True North, Strong and Green: Celebrating Canada’s Forests.”

With 348 million hectares of forest in Canada there is, literally, a lot to celebrate. Internationally, this expanse represents 9 per cent of the world’s forests, 24 per cent percent of the planet’s boreal forests, and the third largest forest-area after Russia and Brazil. These forests are critical to our well-being, as they provide essential ecological services, such as water and air purification, nutrient cycling and carbon storage, soil stabilization, and habitat for a diversity of species. In addition to this, forests support our recreational, cultural, traditional, and spiritual needs and supply us with timber, food, and fuel. Of course, there are also those that directly rely upon forests for employment and others who build their livelihoods from secondary industries. Indeed, our lives are so inextricably entwined with that of forests that it is entirely natural for us to link forests with our sense of national identity.

However, forests also kindle vital debates that challenge us to examine how we relate with the land and one another. Among other topics, these debates wrestle with questions such as: who has authority to make decisions concerning the planning and management of forestlands? What worldviews – beliefs and values – inform decision-making and how are decisions made?

These questions are at the core of disagreements over forest use and the way in which we answer them reveals a great deal about how we understand the constitution of our country. According to the Oxford dictionary, this word – constitution – has at least two meanings that come into play when making decisions about forest use.

The first definition that is likely to come to mind is the one that refers to a “body of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organization is acknowledged to be governed.” For many individuals, this definition alludes to the founding document of Canada, the Constitution Act (or British North American Act) of 1867. Or we might think of the patriated Constitution Act of 1982, which, among other things, actuated Canada’s independence from the United Kingdom and introduced Section 35, a provision which recognizes and affirms Aboriginal and treaty rights.

However, most Indigenous groups never signed the Constitution at the time it was created. In British Columbia, this has spurred Indigenous leaders to challenge the Province’s claimed jurisdiction over and ownership of forestlands. These challenges have advanced our understanding of Aboriginal Rights and Title in Canadian law as case after case – many of which have been triggered by provincially-approved forestry activity – move through the Supreme Court of Canada. These cases have certainly challenged how we make decisions concerning forestlands, ultimately resulting in the adoption of new practices. They also challenge us to think critically about the legal structure that guides our decision-making, as these cases are argued within a framework that has arisen from a European legal tradition and makes use of concepts that are foreign to Indigenous law—a form of law that is rooted in Indigenous societies and that is distinct from Aboriginal law, which is rooted in the Canadian constitution. In turn, these cases also provide an opportunity to consider the different ways our legal framework(s) might evolve to expresses how we interpret our national identity.

This brings us to the second definition of the term constitution, which refers to the “composition of something.” What is the nature of Canada’s national identity? Is Canada a nation made in the image of European values? Or is it, as Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul argues, a Métis nation shaped by Indigenous ideas? Or perhaps it is something else? The point being that (among other considerations) how we understand our identity will impact how decisions are made by Indigenous leaders, forest practitioners, and the courts concerning forest use. If we do see ourselves as a nation shaped by Indigenous ideas, do all those involved in decision-making concerning forests see Indigenous law as law and have an understanding regarding how to engage with it?

The short answer is no. Although Indigenous communities are working diligently to revitalize their governance systems and laws, there is a need for legal professionals and forest practitioners to familiarize themselves with Indigenous laws in order to engage respectfully with them when making decisions concerning forest use. The need for legal professionals to learn about Indigenous law has already been explicitly articulated in the Calls to Action presented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada. Although explicit Calls to Action have not been directed at forest practitioners, there are calls for those in the public service and corporate sector – where forest practitioners are employed – to become educated regarding Indigenous law.

The Calls to Action developed by the TRC were made to advance the process of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. To do their part, forest practitioners will need to educate themselves regarding Indigenous law in order to make decisions concerning the management of forests in a manner that honours a national identity that is true to how we conceive of ourselves, supports the development of strong communities, and maintains the Green services that forests provide. That’s the idea of a “True North, Strong and Green” that I’ll be celebrating during this year’s National Forest Week.

For more information regarding National Forestry Week in BC, visit


Natalie A. Swift is a specialist in ecosystem management interested in Canadian identity and forest governance, planning, and management. She is currently a Masters of Science student in the Faculty of Forestry at the University of British Columbia and a Forester in Training with the Association of BC Forest Professionals.



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