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Supreme Court of Canada makes landmark ruling on Aboriginal land claims

A decision by the Supreme Court of Canada last week will have profound effects on resource development projects in this country.


A decision by the Supreme Court of Canada last week will have profound effects on resource development projects in this country.

On June 26 the Supreme Court declared a unanimous 8-0 decision giving aboriginal title to 440,000 hectares of land in the interior of B.C. to the Tsilhqot’in First Nation.

The decision allowed that even though the Tsilhqot’in did not have many permanent encampments in the land because were semi-nomadic, they had title to it because they had occupied and lived on the land for centuries. The land lies to the south and west of Williams Lake.

While the ruling focused on one claim, analysts hailed it for providing much needed clarity on Aboriginal land claims in general. A report in the Globe and Mail by Sean Fine on June 26 said it was “the most important Supreme Court ruling on aboriginal rights in Canadian history — a culmination of all previous rulings.” The court had determined, said the report, “that native Canadians still own their ancestral lands, unless they signed away their ownership in treaties with government.” As a result, “Aboriginal communities gain important new economic assets, and powerful leverage over developments by outsiders, but not a veto.”

A CBC News report of the same day said the Supreme Court decision established that land title depends on three things: occupation, continuity of habitation on the land, and exclusivity in area. Also, the ruling established that Aboriginal title gives the right to use the land and profit from it.

According to the CBC, what the ruling means for resource development is that governments at all levels now carry the burden of justifying that such developments should take place. First Nations must now give their consent to economic development on their land. Then, “failing that, the government must make the case that development is pressing and substantial, and meet its fiduciary duty to the aboriginal group.”

First Nations were “jubilant” about the decision and erupted into cheers in the courtroom. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said in a news conference, “It only took 150 years, but we look forward to a much brighter future. This, without question, will establish a solid platform for genuine reconciliation to take place in British Columbia.”

The Business Council of B.C. reacted quickly: “Given the complexity of the case, we will be examining the ramifications of this ruling for business and industry in B.C. over the coming days. However, our initial view is that today’s Supreme Court decision is an important clarification of aboriginal title and provides for greater certainty around the application of provincial law and regulation on the land base in British Columbia….

“The Business Council notes that our member companies have, for the past two decades, negotiated and implemented hundreds of agreements that seek to provide investment certainty and shared benefits with First Nations. In addition, the Government of British Columbia has a significant number of economic reconciliation tools, including revenue sharing and other measures, which are designed to provide benefits and certainty as government moves down the path of reconciling economic activity with aboriginal rights and title interests.”

To read the report in the Globe and Mail, click here.

To read the report in the CBC News, click here.