Video: Part 4 – You can change the world – Jack Woodward on aboriginal rights

You can change the world.”  This is part 4 of 4 of Jack Woodward’s keynote presentation at the Canadian Bar Association’s National Aboriginal Law Conference [PDF], on June 11, 2015 at Fortress Louisberg National Historic Site, Nova Scotia.


Increasingly, the burden of protecting the environment in Canada has fallen on the shoulders of aboriginal people. These 600 or so small, mostly rural, First Nations who occupy portions of their ancient tribal territories, often disadvantaged economically and socially, are increasingly the people Canadians look to for environmental protection.

For example, last month a tiny community of Inuit at Clyde River on Baffin Island successfully stopped seismic testing that would have disturbed sea mammals that the community depends on for food. Canada had approved the testing, but the Clyde River Inuit got the project cancelled, with the support of a broad base of Inuit, aboriginal and environmental groups.

Of course, the Harper government has noticed where their opposition is coming from. Consider the opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline. Courageous aboriginal people turned out in the hundreds at the Joint Review Panel hearings to have their voices heard in opposition the Northern Gateway Pipeline. Then, in 2012 our current Finance Minister Joe Oliver called those same aboriginal people, those First Canadians, “radicals” and charged they were trying to “hijack” Canada’s review process with support from “foreign special interest groups.”

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of B.C. said this about the proposed liquefied natural gas projects:

The economy of this province is being built on the destruction of the Northeast. The pipelines that are being contemplated by LNG will further destroy the North. We have a social responsibility, as human beings, as grandparents and parents, to lend our support to Treaty 8, to all of the people in the North that are fighting so valiantly to push back this agenda.

Canada’s aboriginal people have constitutionally protected rights to meaningful habitat protection, and to protection of their land-based cultural traditions, based on ecological and scientific principles, on a cumulative basis. There is an active and courageous judiciary in Canada, ready and willing to enforce these laws. These laws are capable of:

saving endangered species,
slowing the expansion of the tar sands,
protecting the great North American boreal forest,
curtailing pollution in three oceans,
protecting rivers, and
preserving the homelands of the aboriginal nations.

You, my colleagues, are practicing in an exciting time. It is a great privilege for us, as lawyers, to be able to have some part in this great cause of justice –the continuation of the work of the Royal Proclamation of 1763. It is hard to think of a time in history when lawyers been able to represent a dispossessed people within a receptive justice system, with a reasonable chance that they can help restore to them their lands, and their heritage. We live in that time, and it is an incredible privilege, to live in a country where our legal system is so resilient that we can achieve such sweeping justice legally, peacefully, and without violence.

But the situation for us, as lawyers in this field, is even more crucial, demanding, urgent and important. The world is facing catastrophic environmental challenges. Pollution, loss of biological diversity, over-consumption of resources, and climate change are the greatest challenges humanity has ever faced.

Most people feel powerless to do anything about it. You have the unique privilege and responsibility of actually having the power to change things. You and your clients have the benefit of unparalleled legal powers – the strongest environmental laws in the world. You and your clients can do something, with your guidance and skill. You can change things. The courts are ready. The aboriginal people are ready. The law is clear. Advancing s. 35 rights is the tool, I think it is the only tool in the current political climate, to save the homelands of the aboriginal peoples of Canada, to save the great North American boreal forest, to save those “hunting grounds”.

You can change the world.