Lac Seul First Nation v Canada, 2017 FC 906

Wiyasiwewin Mikiwahp Native Law Centre Case Watch

Canada breached its fiduciary duty to the Plaintiffs and must pay equitable damages of $30 million; third party claims against Ontario and Manitoba dismissed.

The Lac Seul First Nation [LSFN] claimed that Canada breached its treaty with the LSFN (Treaty No. 3), the Indian Act, and its fiduciary duties and obligations. LSFN sought damages from Canada for losses from the flooding of part of the LSFN Reserve following the construction of the Ear Falls Storage Dam where Lac Seul drains into the English River. LSFN requested punitive damages and costs along with equitable compensation for a loss of opportunity for hydroelectric benefits, past present and future, in the amount of $506.6 million including avoidable losses due to erosion, loss of timber and community infrastructure in the amount of $40 million.

The Lac Seul Storage Project provided the water reservoir necessary to permit power generation for the City of Winnipeg and Northwestern Ontario. In 1929, the Ear Falls Storage Dam was completed, as part of a project to maximize the potential for hydroelectric developments on the Winnipeg River in Manitoba to provide power to the City of Winnipeg. The parties agreed that this part of the LSFN Reserve land is now under water. With the flooding, the LSFN lost the use and enjoyment of this portion of its Reserve. Other impacts from flooding on the LSFN included lost houses, wild rice fields, and the separation by water of two of its communities, Kejick Bay and Whitefish Bay.

Ultimately the Court assessed the Plaintiffs’ equitable damages at $30 million. The factors considered included the amount of the calculable losses and that many of the non-quantifiable losses created in 1929 persisted over decades, and some still continue. The failure to remove the timber from the foreshore created an eyesore and impacted the natural beauty of the Reserve land. This created a long-term water hazard effecting travel and fishing for members of the LSFN. The flooding negatively affected hunting and trapping. Although Canada supplied the materials to build the replacement houses, the LSFN members supplied their own labour. The LSFN docks were not replaced, as well hay land, gardens and rice fields were destroyed. Two LSFN communities were separated by water and one became an island, impacting the ease of movement of the people who lived there. Canada failed to keep the LSFN informed and never consulted with the band on any of the flood related matters that affected it, creating uncertainty and anxiety for the band. Canada failed to act in a prompt and effective manner to deal with compensation with the LSFN prior to the flooding and many years after the flooding, despite being aware of the negative impact on the band members.

It was determined that this $30 million in equitable compensation would be sufficient to put LSFN back in the place they would have been but for the breach and would meet the objectives of retribution, deterrence, and denunciation, as there have been no punitive damages awarded in an Aboriginal law context. A declaration was also sought that the LSFN legal interests in the flooded lands and the freeboard area have not been encumbered or extinguished. Canada admitted and accepted that LSFN had “retained the flooded Reserve lands.” A declaration would therefore serve no purpose. Canada claimed a defence of laches, but this defence does not apply as the trial record revealed a singular failure of Canadian government departments to communicate with the members of the LSFN. Similarly, the decisions made regarding the cutting of timber on the foreshore, the use of the unemployed men as a relief project, and its later abandonment were events that also occurred with little or no communication with the LSFN. Lastly, the negotiation of a payment to the LSFN was done in 1943 and accepted by Canada with no evidence that the LSFN was ever informed of the structure of the settlement, or its amount.

It is inexplicable in the evidence as to why Canada took no steps either at the time of the first flooding or subsequently to legally authorize the expropriation through flooding of these Reserve lands. Moreover, no compensation was paid to LSFN relating to the flooded lands or consequent damages suffered until November 17, 1943, which was not an appropriate amount and was in breach of Canada’s fiduciary duty to LSFN. Canada defended the main action and commenced third party claims against both Ontario and Manitoba for contribution and indemnity, pursuant to the terms of the Lac Seul Conservation Act (Canada) and An Act Respecting Lac Seul Storage (Ontario). Where the third parties have no fiduciary duty to the beneficiary, the defendant cannot apportion its liability for equitable compensation to them. Canada is not being asked to pay more than its share of the losses as it is solely responsible for them.

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