Application granted. A potential for adverse impact suffices to trigger the duty to consult. Although the question is open on whether “government conduct” attracting the duty to consult includes the legislative process, the doctrine does extend to strategic, higher level decisions that may have an impact on Aboriginal claims and rights.
Located at Abercrombie Point, Pictou County, is a bleached kraft pulp mill (“the mill”) that is owned and operated by Northern Pulp Nova Scotia Corporation (“Northern Pulp”). The Boat Harbour Act(“BHA”), provides that the use of the mill must cease on January 31, 2020. Northern Pulp, however, is in the planning stages to apply for an Environmental Assessment (“EA”) (Environmental Act) for the design, construction and operation of a new Effluent Treatment Facility (“ETF”), otherwise the current ETF must be closed as required by the Act. The Province is currently in active consultation with the Pictou Landing First Nation (“PLFN”) regarding this application and has confirmed $70,000.00 in capacity funding to support PLFN’s meaningful participation in that process. The Province has disclosed it is also engaged in confidential discussions directly with Northern Pulp regarding potential Crown funding to support construction of the new ETF (“Potential Crown Funding”), but no such decision has yet been made.
PLFN applied for judicial review of a decision by the office of Provincial Minister of Aboriginal Affairs to deny consultation with respect to the issue of whether the Province may fund the construction of a new EFT. PLFN took the position that any such Potential Crown Funding by the Province is a separate decision that triggers an independent duty to consult with the PLFN, as this decision will have the effect of continuing the operation of the mill beyond the 2020 deadline. It could further impact the asserted rights and interests of the PLFN, but the Province disagrees that any form of Potential Crown Funding would trigger an independent duty to consult with the PLFN, as it does not meet the established legal test. There is yet no additional or potential adverse impact on the PLFN’s rights and interests.
The Court concluded upon the facts that: 1) the current ETF is an integral part of the current operation of the mill as a whole; 2) that the current ETF must close no later than January 31, 2020; 3) that the new ETF which will replace the existing facility will be integral to the continued operation of the mill beyond the deadline, and it must replace those functions discharged by the current ETF; 4) each additional potential source of funding that is available for the project makes it more likely that the new ETF project will happen; and 5) that as a consequence of a Provincial decision to fund the project, even if it is not the only potential source of funding, it would make it more likely that the mill will remain open.
An application for judicial review is the appropriate mechanism by which to seek a determination as to whether there has been a breach of the duty to consult. The Court, however, is not being asked to review a completed process of consultation replete with an extensive activity record. This would ordinarily trigger the application of a standard of reasonableness. But in these circumstances, the extant case law frames the applicable standard of review as one of correctness. Either the duty to consult exists or it does not (Mi’kmaq of Prince Edward Island v Prince Edward Island  PESC 20). The duty to consult is triggered at a low threshold, but it must remain a meaningful threshold. There must be some appreciable or discernible impact flowing from the impugned Crown conduct before a duty to consult will arise. This is both logical and practical because there has to be something for the Crown and the Aboriginal group to consult about. It is conceivable that the Crown may proceed after consultation with a new ETF against the strong opposition of PLFN. But if it did, there becomes an issue of compatibility with the honour of the Crown. “Meaningful consultation” requires a “meaningful effort by the government to act in a manner that is consistent with the honour of the Crown in that particular context” (Mikisew Cree First Nation v Canada (GGC),  1 CNLR 277 (SCC)).
A potential for adverse impact suffices to trigger the duty to consult as it extends to strategic, higher level decisions that may have an impact on Aboriginal claims and rights (Rio Tinto Alcan Inc v Carrier Sekani Tribal Council,  4 CNLR 250 (SCC)). As to what constitutes an “adverse effect”, the claimant must show a causal relationship between the proposed government conduct or decision and a potential for adverse impacts on pending Aboriginal claims or rights. Although there is a generous, purposive approach to this element, past wrongs, including previous breaches of the duty to consult, and speculative impacts does not suffice to be an adverse effect (R v Douglas,  3 CNLR 277 (BCCA)). The adverse effect must be on the future exercise of the right itself, but an adverse effect on a First Nation’s future negotiating position also does not suffice. Adverse impacts extend to any effect that may prejudice a pending Aboriginal claim or right. Often the adverse effects are physical in nature, however, it could also be in connection with what constitutes Crown conduct, high-level management decisions or structural changes to the resource’s management, even if these decisions have no immediate impact. This is because such structural changes to the resources management may set the stage for further decisions that will have a direct adverse impact on land and resources.
The Province’s interest as lender funding the new ETF will undoubtedly influence “higher level” strategic decision making. If the Province is to become the lender, not only is it providing the means by which the ETF will be built, but it will have an interest to ensure that the mill will continue to remain in operation into the future so as to at least recover the taxpayers’ investment. Separation of the potential funding issue would result in the loss of an opportunity for the two sides to discuss whether the financing, if it was to be provided by the Province, should or could be tied into a system of penalties or rewards for achieving, or failing to achieve, proposed emission or effluent discharge targets. This may, potentially, impact upon the likelihood that these targets would be attained. The bifurcation of issues of the “design and construction” from the “actual funding” of the ETF, artificially compartmentalizes a process which should be treated more holistically.