NWT First Nations to develop traditional knowledge legal systems

The Yellowknives Dene and Behdzi Adha First Nations have received funding through the federal Justice Partnership and Innovation Program to build in-house legal systems.

The federal Department of Justice on Monday announced $9.5 million in total funding spread over 21 projects across Canada. The department didn’t provide funding information for specific projects.

The two NWT First Nations to receive funding will both use the money to record oral knowledge and codify, or systematically organize, the recordings into their own traditional legal system.


“It all starts with the Elders,” said Behdzi Adha First Nation Chief Wilbert Kochon. “We’ve never documented stuff like this before. It’s all oral history engraved into us and now we’re going to document it.”

The Behdzi Adha First Nation’s Dehla Got’ine Caribou Law Project will conduct Elder interviews and community research to inform a set of laws and traditions related to caribou harvesting. Kochon said work on the project will begin at the end of May.

The second project to receive funding, the Wıı̀lıı̀deh Nation Rebuilding Project, will provide the Yellowknives Dene First Nation (YKDFN) with three years of funding to codify Wıı̀lıı̀deh legal traditions.

Wıı̀lıı̀deh is one of two traditional languages used by the Yellowknives Dene.


“The Wıı̀lıı̀deh Nation Rebuilding Project will ensure that the YKDFN government is based on Wıı̀lıı̀deh legal traditions as opposed to copy-and-pasting western traditions into a new, post-Indian Act governance structure,” Johanne Black, the First Nation’s director of treaty rights and governance, said in an email.

Black said the project will unfold in three stages.

In the first stage, YKDFN will record interviews on Wıı̀lıı̀deh laws, governance, and legal traditions with Dene traditional knowledge holders.

Drawing on those interviews, the First Nation will then develop a governance framework – which Black described as a “how-to manual” for shifting from a western to a traditional legal system.

The project will culminate with the establishment of a Wıı̀lıı̀deh constitution that will form the bedrock of a future Dene system of law and governance.

The federal justice department said the funding is a direct response to Call to Action 50 from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report. Call to Action 50 recommends the federal government fund the establishment of Indigenous law institutes.

“This funding is intended to foster positive impacts for Indigenous communities and provide support to renew legal relationships with Indigenous peoples in Canada,” the department said in a news release.

The federal government announced investments of $18 million over five years to revive the Law Commission of Canada in its most recent budget. The Law Commission of Canada was first established in 1971 and has been responsible for reviewing Canadian laws in its two periods of activity since. The government said it is reviving the commission, in part, to address systemic barriers to Indigenous justice in the Canadian legal system.

YKDFN and Behdzi Adha were the only First Nations across all three territories to receive funding through the program. First Nations in Ontario received the most funding, with six projects earning support.