Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson

Class of 1995-1996

I am a member of the Haida Nation and a member of the Raven Clan. In our oral traditions, Raven was Originally white. There are days and days of stories of Raven as he ... haphazardly brings the world into existence as we know it. Through that process he steals the sun and the moon from their caretakers, flies through the smoke hole in the longhouse and brings light to the world. And when he flew through the smoke hole, he became black. Some people view the white raven as being Raven in his truest form, having to undergo challenges and sacrifices to bring about better good for people. That’s the work I focus on ... and also it’s a personal crest of mine that I’ve associated with for about 12 years. So I thought it was fitting for my law corporation.

You wouldn’t be out of line to see the law as having been an instrument of the oppression of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada. But when Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson formed White Raven Law Corporation immediately after her call to the bar, she tied her shield to the law and began to use it as an instrument of reconciliation and healing among the people of the Haida Gwaii.

“I wanted to go to law school when I was in grade 5,” Williams-Davidson laughs now. A trip through the United States years later further illuminated that path for her. “Seeing different land battles, and seeing elders taking up arms against uranium mining, I decided that I would commit to go to law school and work on protecting the land.”

Her undergraduate work focused on economics, commerce and computer science, all of which have informed her approach to the practice of law. “I embrace technology,” she says. In gathering evidence over the past several years for an Aboriginal title case of the Haida, she says, “We’ve scanned in and OCR’d a lot of documents in preparation for an electronic trial.”

Williams-Davidson’s goal in her work is to “arrive at a reconciliation process that is sustainable environmentally, culturally and economically,” she says. “Those are the main components that we
have to balance in the cases that we present in court.”

In considering the economic component, Williams-Davidson realized soon after forming White Raven that “Aboriginal Peoples have been in effect dispossessed through the laws and regulations and the allocation of lands ... so First Nations don’t have the financial ability to bring the kind of litigation at the scale we need to ensure the development of Aboriginal law.” Inspired by the Native American Rights Fund, a registered charity in the US, and by Sierra Legal Defense Fund, where she articled, Williams-Davidson co-founded EAGLE in 1997—Environment-Aboriginal Guardianship through Law and Education. Mandated to protect the natural environment for all people through the provision of legal services to Aboriginal peoples, EAGLE raises funds for salaries for lawyers and support staff and provides community workshops on the state of Aboriginal-Environmental law.

Along with Louise Mandell (class of 1975), UBC Law Professor Michael Jackson and others, Williams-Davidson and EAGLE represented the Haida Nation in a landmark victory to protect the old-growth forests of Haida Gwaii (2004). “As the Parties work through accommodation of pre-proof rights, we’re at about 50 percent of the land protected,” says Williams-Davidson. “That’s a significant amount, given that under the BC treaty process, the limit the province places is five percent.”

With Haida, the Haida Nation and Williams-Davidson saw the potential for litigation—conventionally an adversarial process—to bring about a better result than might otherwise have occurred. “That case was about challenging MacMillan Bloedel’s and Weyerhaeuser’s logging rights,” she explains. “The community that was employed by Weyerhaeuser ... Port Clements ... actually intervened in favour of the Haida Nation at the Supreme Court of Canada to say that speaking and working directly with the Haida would provide a brighter future and more long-term sustainable community than if they continued with the province’s existing tenure system. This is different than just a decision. It’s a much fuller outcome for everyone in that everyone’s involved in shaping the future. It’s strange to think that litigation would encourage a new kind of dialogue!”

Williams-Davidson served as EAGLE’s Executive Director for eight years and as Managing Lawyer for another year before turning the full force of her focus back to White Raven. Now, she is General Counsel for the Haida Nation, bringing forward their Aboriginal title case for Haida Gwaii challenging the exercise of the Crown’s underlying authority under various legislation. The case will address title to the seabed—in this instance, offshore oil and gas development in Hecate Strait and tanker traffic through the port of Prince Rupert—for the first time anywhere in the world. “An important part of the case, though,” says Williams-Davidson, “is that we’re not just seeking a declaration of title. One of our objectives is to look at, ‘How do we live together with the land? How do we reconcile Aboriginal title with Crown title? How can we achieve that balance?’”

Williams-Davidson went to law school to learn to protect the land, but she knew that part of what she was attempting to do was to protect—and preserve—the people’s relationship to the land. Her people. And by extension, all people. “Our culture is so directly a mirror of the land,” says Williams-Davidson. “If the land isn’t protected, then we can’t sustain our culture.” She is speaking of First Nations peoples, but with an understanding that she is speaking for us all. We are all in this together, and the law, so long an accomplice in our treatment of this land and its first peoples, may yet prove to be our way forward.

“Law is really about our relationships with each other,” says Williams-Davidson, “and with Aboriginal law, it’s really about our relationship to the land.”

Written by Diane Haynes and originally published in the UBC Law Alumni Magazine, Winter 2008.