Canada’s First Finding of Aboriginal Title: Tsilhqot’in Nation v. B.C.

Authors: Alexandria J. Pike and Sarah V. Powell

On June 26, 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) granted the appeal of the Tsilhqot’in Nation, confirming their Aboriginal title over tracts of Crown land in British Columbia. Until this landmark decision, previous claims of Aboriginal title had failed to meet the stringent test set out in the SCC’s 1997 decision in Delgamuukw for Aboriginal title to lands: the Aboriginal claimant must demonstrate that their occupation of the lands prior to sovereignty was sufficient, continuous and exclusive.‎ By demonstrating that the Tsilhqot’in Nation’s semi-nomadic ancestors had hunted, fished and gathered on the lands prior to sovereignty to the exclusion of others and that the Tsilhqot’in Nation continues to use the lands today, the Tsilhqot’in Nation had their right to control such lands assured through a declaration of Aboriginal title.

The decision confirms the Crown’s obligation to consult and accommodate Aboriginal interests on such lands and goes further to explain that any development on Aboriginal title lands would be subject to the consent of the Aboriginal title holder. Absent such consent, the Crown can only infringe proven Aboriginal title by establishing such use is justified on the basis of the broader public good under Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. The Crown must establish that the infringing use serves a compelling and substantial public interest and is consistent with the Crown’s fiduciary duty to the Aboriginal title holder.

The SCC called for a culturally sensitive approach to assessing title, recognizing the intention and capacity of the Tsilhqot’in Nation to control the area.  By confirming a territorial use-based approach to analyzing Aboriginal title (i.e. rather than relying on proven use at specific sites), this decision provides important guidance to governments and development proponents:

“…the court must be careful not to lose or distort the Aboriginal perspective by forcing ancestral practices into the square boxes of common law concepts, thus frustrating the goal of faithfully translating pre-sovereignty Aboriginal interests into equivalent modern legal rights.”

Concerns over wide-spread development restrictions resulting from this decision are likely premature. On the issue of what public benefit objectives could justify infringement on Aboriginal title, the SCC confirmed its decision in Delgamuukw that the development of agriculture, forestry, mining, hydroelectric power and infrastructure could be compelling and substantial, but would have to be considered on a case-by-case basis. In this case, the enactment and application of British Columbia’s forestry management and harvesting regime to the Aboriginal title lands of the Tsilhqot’in Nation failed to meet this test. The findings of the lower court were upheld as to the limited public benefit (economic or ecological) of the forestry regime and it was determined that undue hardship and denial of rights of the Tsilhqot’in Nation would result.

What perhaps should be given more attention is the assertion by the SCC that the Aboriginal title holder and any government authorizing development on the lands must ensure that such development does not deprive future Aboriginal generations of the control and benefit of the lands. We can expect that the exhaustion of particular resources and the footprint of proposed developments will be given significant scrutiny.

After 20 years in the courts, the success of the Tsilhqot’in Nation in this case has ushered in another important phase of Aboriginal rights recognition in Canada and provides important guidance on how the concepts of sufficiency, continuity and exclusivity will be applied to Aboriginal title claims across Canada. Resource development in areas where Aboriginal title remains an issue (predominantly British Columbia and Eastern Canada but also parts of Ontario, Quebec and the North) will require enhanced Aboriginal engagement, clear public benefit and protection of future Aboriginal use.

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