The Federal Government has a long-standing obligation to provide health services to First Nations. The Applicants pension plans fall under federal jurisdiction.
In NITHA, the Federal Court considered whether the pension plans of the applicants, Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority Inc. (NITHA) and Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation Health Services Inc. (PBCNHS), fell under federal or provincial jurisdiction. The Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions of Canada (OSFI), argued that the pension plans fall under provincial jurisdiction, while NITHA and PBCNHS argue that they fall under federal jurisdiction. Applying the two-part test articulated by the Supreme Court in NIL/TU, O, the Court declared that the pension plans in question fall under federal jurisdiction.
The Court concluded that a correctness standard of review was to be applied on the grounds that the dispute engaged a question of a constitutional nature. NIL/TU, O and Nation Innu Matemekush-Lac John supports that constitutional issues regarding the division of powers are to be decided on a correctness standard.
The applicable test identified as outlined by Abella J in NIL/TU, O, contains two parts. The first part is a functional test of whether the entity is engaged in a federal undertaking. This requires an inquiry into the nature, habitual activities and daily operations of the entity in question. The second part applies only if the first part is inconclusive and it requires consideration of whether provincial regulation would impair the core federal power. The Court also reiterated Abella J’s citation to Four B Manufacturing Ltd, which indicates that federal government funding does not on its own convert the operation into a federal activity.
The functional test calls for an inquiry into the nature, habitual activities and daily operations of the entity in question to determine whether it constitutes a federal undertaking. In examining the Supreme Court’s application of the functional test in NIL/TU, O, the Court highlighted Abella J’s position that the emphasis be placed on the underlying reason for the performance of the activities. The Court also echoed McLachlin CJC and Fish J’s concern in Four B Manufacturing Ltd that the test must be applied cautiously to avoid simply conflating the nature of activities with the habitual and daily operations involved in carrying out an activity.
The Court concluded that OSFI made an error by failing to consider the underlying reason for the activities. In particular, the fact that OSFI narrowly construed the purpose of the agreements governing the relationship, by referring to some recitals and excluding others which make reference to constitutional provisions, the special relationship subsisting between First Nations People and the Crown as well as important historical documents, such as Treaties 5, 6, 8 and 10, which include promises of healthcare. These treaties make it clear that the Federal Government undertook to provide health services to Indians on Indian Reserves.
On this basis, the Court granted the application for certiorari to quash OSFI’s decision. These arguments, along with a further examination of the historical treaty record, were also used to support a declaration that the provision of health services to the Indians is a century long federal undertaking made, in part, in keeping with the treaty relationship between the Applicants and the Federal Government.