Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson (Haida), attorney, author, activist, artist, and musician

Jackleen De La Harpe

Jackleen De La Harpe

Guest Writer

Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson. Farah Nosh Photography

Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson (Haida) is an attorney, author, activist, artist, and musician and a 2023 Indigenous Leadership Awardee. She is being honored for her abiding commitment to the perpetuation of Haida culture, language, and music and for her influential and substantial impact across Canada in the realm of Indigenous law. 

The lush green islands of Haida Gwaii, more than 80 nautical miles west of mainland British Columbia, have been the homelands of the Haida Nation for thousands of years. At the nexus of Hecate Strait and the Pacific Ocean, the temperate rainforests are surrounded by salt water, home to abundant fish, whales, and seabirds. 

Haida oral traditions describe Supernatural Beings who shaped everything that is Haida Gwaii, from life-sustaining old growth forests to the oceans and all life there. With settlers and introduced disease arriving in the late 1800s, the Haida were decimated: more than 90% of Haida people died, a population bordering on extinction. Survivors endured assimilation policies and residential schools, while Haida economic and social structures, such as the potlatch, were outlawed, threatening Haida sovereignty and culture.

Yet, the Haida Nation has persisted in spirit, in practice, and in the courts of law, where Haida narratives are shaping legal language through provincial and federal case law. 

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Portrait of Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson. Farah Nosh Photography

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Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson performing. Courtesy of Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson

Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson (Haida), attorney for Haida Nation, has made it her life’s work to protect and preserve Haida law and culture. An artist, activist, and scholar, she draws on the unwritten laws of her people to redefine Canadian law and restore relationships between people with the land, waters, and environment. 

She is honored with an Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Award for her tireless efforts in advocating for Indigenous law within Canadian courts to protect Haida Gwaii and her contributions to the Haida community through scholarship and art. Her work calls attention through creative expression to the power of Haida traditions that have guided Haida people for thousands of years.

Williams-Davidson, 58, of the Skedans Raven Clan, was born on Haida Gwaii to Haida parents. As early as fifth grade, she said, she knew she wanted to be a lawyer. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science, a law degree, a Master of Laws degree, and is currently completing a PhD in law. She acknowledges that all her efforts are intended to protect the land and sea of Haida Gwaii through Haida law. 

Terri-Lynn speaks on the interaction of Haida laws to achieve respectful co-existence. Little Wolf Productions

She has represented the Haida Nation in litigation and negotiation since 1995, transforming Indigenous-Crown relationships through the landmark 2004 Haida Nation v. British Columbia case that established a legal duty upon Crown governments to consult and accommodate Indigenous interests affected by development. The Haida Nation now co-manages 75 percent of the land on Haida Gwaii. 

Her legal work catalyzed Canadian negotiations with Indigenous governments, and she is regarded as a leading practitioner of Aboriginal rights in Canada. A principal force in the resurgence of Indigenous law, she has focused on presenting Haida laws in the Court, such as explaining Haida views of kinship where cedar trees are sisters of the people.

It is our way of living with the land and sea that is really our law.

—Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson

“I seek to find ways to bridge gaps,” said Williams-Davidson, who founded White Raven Law Corporation. “My role in court is to translate Haida laws and Haida knowledge and ways of being so that the Court understands and hopefully rules in our favor.”

Her achievements have been recognized with a King’s Counsel honor and a Haida traditional hand-forged copper, one of the highest honors reserved for hereditary chiefs and cultural leaders. She was listed by MacLean’s Magazine in 2020 as one of 50 Canadians changing the way we think. Canadian Lawyer magazine ranks her among the top 25 lawyers and judges who are making an impact on the profession. She was recognized as one of 500 most influential business leaders in British Columbia in 2022.

She is currently preparing an essential legal challenge, setting down the Haida Title case that “will likely focus on marine spaces,” she said. “There is no test to title for seabed in Canada. We must resolve that. It’s the last frontier with more than $80 million of fish taken every year from the waters of Haida Gwaii. We need to achieve balance.” 

Williams-Davidson is working to research and record original Haida laws of the lands, waters, and peoples of Haida Gwaii, further laying the groundwork for governance. A collaboration with Haida Elders, knowledge holders, and language speakers, her scholarship has the potential to transform the legal landscape of Canada by reasserting Haida law.

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Terri-Lynn’s “Landslide Lady Portrait.” Farah Nosh Photography

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“Jiilakuns Portrait,” the cover picture for the album “Grizzly Bear Town,” by Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson, Bill Henderson, and Claire Lawrence. Farah Nosh Photography

As an artist, she brings attention to her ancestral lands and the deeply held beliefs of the Haida through art, music, and writing. She has won multiple awards for her singing and musical collaborations integrating Haida music traditions with contemporary arrangements. She has recorded three albums and is currently recording a Haida Solstice album that “Haida-izes” Christmas music.

“It is a translation process focused on the rich musical traditions of the Haida Nation,” she said. 

To connect people with the profound knowledge of Haida Gwaii’s Supernatural Beings, Williams-Davidson reconceptualized oral traditions to portray Supernatural Beings as photorealistic images. Haida artists have always depicted Supernatural Beings in abstract traditional form, she said. Her multimedia work has been exhibited at the Haida Gwaii Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery in Vancouver, B.C., among others.

Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson at Comox Valley Art Gallery.

She also wrote about Supernatural Beings in her book, Out of Concealment: Female Supernatural Beings of Haida Gwaii (2017), and in two best-selling books for children, Magical Beings of Haida Gwaii (2019), and a Magical Beings activity book (2022). Supernatural Beings also ground her academic work. 

“Most Indigenous scholars in Canada don’t consider supernatural knowledge when they analyze oral histories. Yet if Haida people were to do that, we would lose many of the laws that are important to the Haida Nation,” she said. Her passion is to bring Haida law out of concealment to protect Haida Gwaii for the future. 

“Law in the Canadian framework is very complicated,” she said. “For Haida people, it’s simple. It’s our way of being with the land and sea. Some people think that’s too simple, but it’s deceptively simple and a sophisticated way of sustainably managing human impacts on the environment.” 

For her dedication and love of her culture, Ecotrust is honored to recognize Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson as a 2023 Indigenous Leadership Award recipient. 

Remarks and reflections from Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson during the 2023 Indigenous Leadership Award ceremony.

Links

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WEBSITE

Terri-Lynn is a musician, author, activist, artist, and lawyer who has dedicated herself to the continuation of Haida language and culture.

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WEBSITE

White Raven Law offers Indigenous communities an innovative approach to handling legal challenges with integrity and compassion.
press release

PRESS RELEASE

PORTLAND, Ore.  — July 17, 2023 — Ecotrust today announced the recipients of the 2023 Indigenous Leadership Awards. 

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