Supreme Court expands land-title rights in unanimous ruling – by Sean Fine (Globe and Mail – June 26, 2014)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

The Supreme Court of Canada has given aboriginal groups a major victory, expanding their rights to claim possession of ancestral lands and control those lands permanently.

“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 court said in an 8-0 ruling written by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin. “If the Aboriginal group does not consent to the use, the government’s only recourse is to establish that the proposed incursion on the land is justified” under the Constitution.

The case has enormous implications for the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. British Columbia has hundreds of unresolved land claims, and the pipeline would cross some of those lands.

The court said that where title is asserted but has not yet been established, the government needs to consult with the aboriginal group in question and accommodate it where appropriate. But once aboriginal title is established, and the aboriginal group refuses to consent to an incursion on its lands, government would have to prove an important public purpose and fulfill its duties of trust and care towards the aboriginal people, before a project can go ahead.

The landmark ruling came after what the Tsilhqot’in Nation described as a 150-year fight to assert possession of 4,000 square kilometres of land west of Williams Lake, B.C. The court battle lasted more than 20 years, beginning as a dispute between the small aboriginal group of 3,000 people, and a logging company that had approval from the B.C. government to cut trees on lands claimed by the Tsilhqot’in.

The Tsilhqot’in said in a prepared statement that the ruling is a step forward toward reconciliation between the government and First Nations. “Resolving Aboriginal title reduces conflict, creates the opportunity for respectful relations and ends an era of denial.”

At the heart of the case is the concept of aboriginal title – how to prove it and how much control it would give a native group that has it. In 1997, the Supreme Court said title means a right to possession of land that goes beyond the right to hunt and fish on it. But its actual existence on a particular site had not been recognized by a court decision. (It has, however, been acknowledged by historical treaties and modern land claims agreements.)

For the rest of this article, click here: