Supreme Court of Canada Rejects First Nation’s Religious Exercise Claims

Here is the 7-2 opinion in Ktunaxa Nation Council v. Minister of Forests:


An excerpt:

The Ktunaxa are a First Nation whose traditional territories include an area in British Columbia that they call Qat’muk. Qat’muk is a place of spiritual significance for them because it is home to Grizzly Bear Spirit, a principal spirit within Ktunaxa religious beliefs and cosmology. Glacier Resorts sought government approval to build a year-round ski resort in Qat’muk. The Ktunaxa were consulted and raised concerns about the impact of the project, and as a result, the resort plan was changed to add new protections for Ktunaxa interests. The Ktunaxa remained unsatisfied, but committed themselves to further consultation. Late in the process, the Ktunaxa adopted the position that accommodation was impossible because the project would drive Grizzly Bear Spirit from Qat’muk and therefore irrevocably impair their religious beliefs and practices. After efforts to continue consultation failed, the respondent Minister declared that reasonable consultation had occurred and approved the project. The Ktunaxa brought a petition for judicial review of the approval decision on the grounds that the project would violate their constitutional right to freedom of religion, and that the Minister’s decision breached the Crown’s duty of consultation and accommodation. The chambers judge dismissed the petition, and the Court of Appeal affirmed that decision.

Kirsten Carlson on The Supreme Court of Canada and Aboriginal and Treaty Rights

Kirsten Matoy Carlson has posted her paper, “Political Failure, Judicial Opportunity: The Supreme Court of Canada and Aboriginal and Treaty Rights,” just published in the American Review of Canadian Studies, on SSRN.

Here is the abstract:

What role do courts play in public policymaking? Fifty years ago, Robert Dahl found that courts largely defer to the political process in public policymaking. Accepted by the majority of scholars today, Dahl’s view suggests skepticism that courts play a significant role in the policymaking process. The few scholars, who concede that courts play a role in policymaking, often see that role as less direct or as in response to public opinion. Using the development of Aboriginal and treaty rights policy in Canada as a case study, I find that the Supreme Court of Canada succeeded in revitalizing the making of Aboriginal and treaty rights policy in the 1990s even without the support of politicians or the public. In 1990, the Court irrevocably altered Aboriginal and treaty rights policy by establishing Aboriginal and treaty rights in section 35(1) of the Constitution and curtailing Parliament’s ability to extinguish these rights. Most notably, the Court reinvigorated the policymaking process by encouraging politicians to revisit Aboriginal and treaty rights policies. When they failed, the Court re-entered the policymaking arena by recognizing and protecting a wide range of Aboriginal and treaty rights from governmental incursion over the next six years. The Court’s emergence as a significant and influential policymaker was the product of historical and institutional forces. While legal mobilization, growing public support, and the judicialization of politics contributed to the development of the Court’s role, I use interviews with political and legal players as well as the Court’s own language to show how the failure of the political process influenced the Court to reinvigorate Aboriginal and treaty rights policymaking. My emphasis on political failure illuminates a more complex relationship between courts, the political process, and policymaking. It also highlights how courts can play an influential role in public policy making.



Canadian Supreme Court Rules Against Grassy Narrows First Nation

Decision here.

The central question on this appeal is whether Ontario has the power to take up lands in the Keewatin area under Treaty 3 so as to limit the harvesting rights under the treaty, or whether this is subject to Canada’s approval.

                    Ontario and only Ontario has the power to take up lands under Treaty 3. This is confirmed by constitutional provisions, the interpretation of the treaty, and legislation dealing with Treaty 3 lands.

                    First, although Treaty 3 was negotiated by the federal government, it is an agreement between the Ojibway and the Crown. Both levels of government are responsible for fulfilling the treaty promises when acting within the division of powers under the Constitution. Sections 109 , 92(5)  and 92A  of the Constitution Act, 1867  establish conclusively that Ontario holds the beneficial interest in the Keewatin lands and has exclusive power to manage and sell those lands as well as to make laws in relation to the resources on or under those lands. Together, these provisions give Ontario the power to take up lands in the Keewatin area under Treaty 3 for provincially regulated purposes such as forestry. Further; s. 91(24) of that same Act does not give Canada the authority to take up provincial land for exclusively provincial purposes.

                    Second, nothing in the text or history of the negotiation of Treaty 3 suggests that a two‑step process requiring federal supervision or approval was intended. The text of the taking‑up clause supports the view that the right to take up land rests with the level of government that has jurisdiction under the Constitution. The reference in the treaty to Canada merely reflects the fact that the lands at the time were in Canada, not Ontario.

                    Lastly, legislation subsequent to the signature of the treaty and which dealt with Treaty 3 lands confirmed Ontario’s right to take up that land by virtue of its control and beneficial ownership of the territory. It did not amend the terms of Treaty 3.

Canadian Supreme Court Issues Decision in Tsilhqot’in First Nation Land Claim

Decision here

Held: The appeal should be allowed and a declaration of Aboriginal title over the area requested should be granted. A declaration that British Columbia breached its duty to consult owed to the Tsilhqot’in Nation should also be granted.


In finding that Aboriginal title had been established in this case, the trial judge identified the correct legal test and applied it appropriately to the evidence. While the population was small, he found evidence that the parts of the land to which he found title were regularly used by the Tsilhqot’in, which supports the conclusion of sufficient occupation. The geographic proximity between sites for which evidence of recent occupation was tendered and those for which direct evidence of historic occupation existed also supports an inference of continuous occupation. And from the evidence that prior to the assertion of sovereignty the Tsilhqot’in repelled other people from their land and demanded permission from outsiders who wished to pass over it, he concluded that the Tsilhqot’in treated the land as exclusively theirs. The Province’s criticisms of the trial judge’s findings on the facts are primarily rooted in the erroneous thesis that only specific, intensively occupied areas can support Aboriginal title. Moreover, it was the trial judge’s task to sort out conflicting evidence and make findings of fact. The presence of conflicting evidence does not demonstrate palpable and overriding error. The Province has not established that the conclusions of the trial judge are unsupported by the evidence or otherwise in error. Nor has it established his conclusions were arbitrary or insufficiently precise. Absent demonstrated error, his findings should not be disturbed.

APTN story here.

CBC here.

Oral Arguments Today in the Canadian Supreme Court in Keewatin v. Ontario

The case on Harvesting Rights in Treaty 3. Description here:

The case is about Ontario’s authority to issue forestry authorizations in Treaty 3, which covers most of north-western Ontario and extends into Manitoba. After one of the longest and most thorough treaty interpretation trials in Canadian history, Justice Sanderson of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice decided that the Ojibway made treaty in 1873 with Canada, not Ontario. This, coupled with Canada’s exclusive responsibility for “Indians, and lands reserved for the Indians” under the constitution, meant that only Canada had the authority to issue forestry authorizations that would significantly affect Treaty 3 hunting and fishing rights.

A unanimous Court of Appeal disagreed. Relying heavily on the Privy Council’s 1888 decision in St. Catherine’s Milling, the Court held that Ontario’s ownership of Crown lands in Treaty 3 left no role for the federal government in land-use decisions affecting treaty rights. To involve Canada, said the Court, would create an “unnecessary, complicated, awkward and likely unworkable” process.

First Peoples Law firm blog posted the briefs (or factums).

First Nations’ briefs here.

Government’s briefs here.

Supreme Court of Canada Denies Leave to Appeal in Hirsekorn v. R


Coverage here.

OTTAWA – The Supreme Court of Canada has refused to hear an appeal involving Metis hunting and fishing rights in Alberta.

The Metis Nation of Alberta had filed arguments on behalf of hunter Garry Hirsekorn that challenged a lower court ruling that restricted hunting rights to around northern Metis settlements.