Canada | Law

First Nations from British Columbia win major land title decision






Fish Lake in British Columbia, part of the aboriginal territory of the Tsilhqot’in Nation. Photo from Protect Fish Lake

The highest court in Canada issued a landmark decision today, recognizing Native title in British Columbia and defining what it means.

The Tsilhqot’in Nation, a coalition of First Nations, laid claim to about 656 square miles in the western region of the province. The Supreme Court of Canada affirmed their title to the land and said they have a right to use, enjoy and profit from it.

"In simple terms, the title holders have the right to the benefits associated with the land — to use it, enjoy it and profit from its economic development," the decision stated. "As such, the Crown does not retain a beneficial interest in Aboriginal title land."

The decision does not mean the First Nations outright own the land. But the court said the Canadian government must obtain their consent before allowing development.

"The right to control the land conferred by Aboriginal title means that governments and others seeking to use the land must obtain the consent of the Aboriginal title holders," the decision stated.

In the event consent is not granted, the court said development can only proceed under Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.

Specifically, the court said the following conditions must be met:
  1. the government must discharge its procedural duty to consult and accommodate;
  2. the government must show how its actions are backed by a compelling and substantial objective; and
  3. the governmental must show how its actions are consistent with the Crown’s fiduciary obligation to the First Nations

"We all heard the decision at the same moment, and the room just erupted in cheers and tears. Everybody is absolutely jubilant. It's very emotional," Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs told CBC News, describing the scene in a Vancouver office where Native leaders gathered to await the decision.

The ruling gives First Nations in B.C. even more leverage over the potential construction of the $7.9 billion Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline that crosses their aboriginal territories.

Get the Story:
Tsilhqot'in First Nation granted B.C. title claim in Supreme Court ruling (CBC 6/26)
‘Tears and cheers’ greet historic Supreme Court ruling handing Tsilhqot’in major victory (APTN 6/26)
Supreme Court expands land-title rights in unanimous ruling (The Globe and Mail 6/26)
Supreme Court’s land-rights ruling could imperil Northern Gateway pipeline (The Globe and Mail 6/26)

Decision from the Supreme Court of Canada:
Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia (June 26, 2014)

Related Stories:
First Nations prepared for battle over pipeline through territory (06/18)