Declaratory relief allowed for Aboriginal right to right-based “all species” commercial fishery.
The plaintiffs are five First Nations whose territories are located on a strip of varying widths along the West Coast of Vancouver Island and are part of the fourteen Nuu-chah-nulth group of Nations. This trial took place in two stages, which was unanticipated by either party when it began. The first part of the trial was heard by a different judge who issued reasons in Ahousaht Indian Band and Nation v Canada (AG),  1 CNLR 1 (BCSC), as well as declarations. There were originally eleven plaintiffs in this action. However, the initial Statement of Claim claimed Aboriginal title on behalf of each of the eleven Nations, as well as Aboriginal rights. Because some of the title claims overlapped, it was ordered that the plaintiffs choose one or more Nations whose claims to title did not overlap, and the claims of those plaintiffs would proceed in this action. The present five plaintiffs proceeded to trial with their claims but the remaining claims have yet to be tried.
The plaintiffs asserted an Aboriginal right to harvest fisheries resources for a variety of purposes including for food, social and ceremonial purposes, commercial purposes, and so on. It was declared in 2009 that the plaintiffs have an Aboriginal right in these terms: “to fish for any species of fish within their Fishing Territories and to sell that fish”. However, the Fishing Territories were limited to a nine-mile strip or Court Defined Area (“CDA”). It was also declared that the entire fisheries management regime, consisting of legislation, regulations, and policies, constituted a prima facie infringement of that right. The trial was then adjourned to allow the parties to negotiate a fishery based on this declaration. In the event the negotiations (“Negotiations”) were unsuccessful, they could return to court on the issue of whether Canada could justify its legislative, regulatory and policy regimes as they apply to the plaintiffs’ Aboriginal fishery, named T’aaq-wiihak, which means “permission to fish”.
The history of this action is complex and interwoven with another action on Aboriginal fishing rights (Lax Kw’alaams Indian Band v Canada (AG),  4 CNLR 346 (SCC)) (“Lax Kw’alaams”), which proceeded slightly ahead of this action, and this Supreme Court of Canada (“SCC”) decision has influenced the course of the present action. After the 2009 judgment, the Negotiations began in 2010, but soon led to a reactivation of the litigation. The Negotiations have continued and are ongoing. Meanwhile, following the first stage of the trial, Canada appealed the 2009 decision. That appeal was dismissed by the Court of Appeal in 2011 (Ahousaht Indian Band v Canada (AG),  3 CNLR 1 (BCCA)). The Court of Appeal upheld the trial decision but removed geoduck species from the “any species” list of the right-based fishery and included other minor variations. Canada then appealed to the SCC. The SCC remanded this present case back to the Court of Appeal in 2012 with no reasons, but with a direction that the case be reconsidered in accordance with their recent decision in Lax Kw’alaams. After reconsideration, the Court of Appeal once again dismissed the appeal and confirmed its order from 2011 (Ahousaht Indian Band v Canada (AG),  4 CNLR 31 (BCCA)). Canada applied to the SCC for leave to appeal the reconsideration decision but was denied in 2014. This court is bound by the Court of Appeal’s 2013 reconsideration decision. The stage of this trial then began in 2015 where the parties agreed that a justification analysis is required for each species of fish for which the plaintiffs have submitted fishing proposals.
This case as it stands can only be concerned with the justification analysis. The 2009 declared Aboriginal right cannot be redefined, despite being general without any qualifiers. However, in order for the justification analysis to take place, the Court held that the right has to be clearly described. The only way to circumscribe the right-based fishery at this stage of trial was by using what could be inferred from reading the 2009 reasons as a whole. Although the Court rendered general comments regarding the infringement and justification analysis in the present case, it found that a justification analysis had to be done in a species-specific manner. An analysis of continuity in respect of each individual species, however, could not result in subtraction of species from the “any species” declaration, despite the 2011 Court of Appeal’s removal of the geoduck species, which was eliminated on the basis of fishing technique.
The 2009 declaration has been described as a two-edged sword. Canada is bound by the right as declared, but the plaintiffs are bound as well, and unhappy with the nine-mile limit for a right-based fishery. They cannot exercise their right within the CDA in a way that is satisfactory to them. The conclusion to be drawn from interpreting the 2009 reasons as a whole, despite the lack of parameters in the declarations, is that the declared right to fish for any species and to sell that fish is to be interpreted as a small-scale, artisanal, local, multi-species, right-based fishery, to be conducted in a nine-mile strip from shore, using small, low-cost boats with limited technology and restricted catching power, and aimed at wide community participation.
Canada, however, did not take the position that the entire regime, found to be a prima facie infringement, could be justified and should remain unchanged. Given all the circumstances and complexity surrounding the procedural history and subsequent Negotiations, it was considered inappropriate or unnecessary to make a general declaration in respect of a failure of the duty to consult in good faith either under the common law or under the declaration. There were stumbling blocks presented by both sides, and the process is still in progress. The Court also noted the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ commitment to ongoing deep consultation, and therefore did not see this as an issue upon which the justification analysis should stand or fall.
Editor’s Note: Six First Nations governments and three industry groups sought leave to intervene on the basis that each has a public interest in a public law issue and each can bring a valuable perspective to the Court. On November 7, 2018, leave for all nine applicants was granted by the British Columbia Court of Appeal but limited to issues that will not be repetitive and will be helpful to the Court (Ahousaht Indian Band and Nation v Canada (AG), 2018 BCCA 413).