Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation v Alberta, 2019 ABCA 401

Appeal dismissed. The chambers judge correctly declared that: 1) the Aboriginal Consultation Office has authority to decide whether the Crown’s duty to consult has been triggered; and 2) a “mere” taking up of land does not in itself adversely affect the treaty rights of a First Nation.

Indigenous Law Centre
Indigenous CaseWatch Blog

The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) sought judicial review of a decision of the Aboriginal Consultation Office (ACO) that the duty to consult was not triggered in relation to a pipeline project. The chambers judge did not judicially review the ACO’s Decision about the duty to consult. The ACFN, however, appeal two declarations out of the five that was made by the chambers judge: 1) whether the ACO has any authority in law to make the decision on whether the duty to consult is triggered; and 2) whether the “mere” act of taking up land by the Crown in a treaty area is sufficient to trigger the duty to consult.

TransCanada Pipelines Limited/Phoenix Energy Holdings Limited [“TransCanada”] contacted the predecessor to the ACO, the Alberta Department of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, seeking guidance on consultation with First Nations for a proposed pipeline project [“Project”]. They were advised that consultation was required with eight First Nations in the affected area. The ACFN was not among these eight. TransCanada decided on its own initiative, however, to provide notice to thirty-three additional First Nations, including the ACFN. TransCanada shared information with respect to the Project and the regulatory process and consulted with the ACFN, funding a study relating to the Project.

Subsequently the ACO submitted its final report [“Decision”] to the Alberta Energy Regulator [“AER”], the decision-maker responsible for approving the construction and operation of the Project. It stated that consultation with the ACFN was not required with regard to the Project. The basis for the Decision was that the Project was outside the geographic area in which the ACO ordinarily requires consultation with the ACFN. The ACO advised that the ACFN was aware of its consultation area. If it wished to modify the area, the appropriate approach was through the GeoData Mapping Project, a cross-ministry initiative whose goal is to create standardized maps, continually updated with contributions from First Nations, of the areas in which First Nations exercise their treaty rights. The purpose of the maps is to provide assistance in determining whether a given project might adversely affect a First Nation’s treaty rights and, therefore, whether the Crown owes a duty to consult.

The AER decides whether to approve pipeline projects such as the Project. The Crown is represented by the Minister of Aboriginal Relations and the ACO is a branch of the Ministry established under the Government of Alberta’s Policy on Consultation with First Nations on Land and Natural Resource Management, 2013. The purpose of the ACO is to manage the consultation process for the Crown and to bring consultation matters under one Ministry, rather than several. It is the ACO’s responsibility to provide advice to the AER on the adequacy of such consultations.

The chambers judge correctly declared that the ACO has authority to decide whether the Crown’s duty to consult has been triggered. The duties of a Minister are normally exercised under the authority of the Minister by responsible officials of a department. Public business could not be carried on if that were not the case. Constitutionally, the decision of such an official is, of course, the decision of the Minister (Carltona Ltd v Commissioner of Works, [1943] 2 All ER 560 (CA)).

Treaty 8 is one of the most important of the post-Confederation treaties. Made in 1899, the First Nations who lived in the area surrendered to the Crown 840,000 square kilometres. The ACFN submits that Treaty 8 gives its members the right to hunt, trap and fish “throughout the tract surrendered excepting such tracts as may be required or taken up from time to time for settlement, mining, lumbering, trading or other purposes”. Therefore, whenever there is a taking up of land anywhere in the land surrendered in Treaty 8, this reduces the available land to Treaty 8 First Nations for hunting, trapping and fishing, and triggers the duty to consult. Any taking up of land triggers the duty.

This dispute is about the meaning of adverse effect. The ACFN’s position is that any taking up of Treaty 8 land automatically has an adverse effect on Treaty 8 rights because it reduces the total land in the Treaty area available to First Nations to exercise those rights. The Crown’s position is that a further step is required to determine if the taking up has, or potentially has, an adverse effect on ACFN’s treaty harvesting rights. The Court agrees that a contextual analysis is required. The signatories to Treaty 8 understood that land would be “taken up” when it was put to a “visible use that was incompatible with hunting” (R v Badger, [1996] 2 CNLR 77). This implies a certain degree of relationship between the taking up and the impact on the First Nation. It cannot be presumed that a First Nation suffers an adverse effect by a taking up anywhere in the treaty lands. A contextual analysis must occur to determine if the proposed taking up may have an adverse effect on the First Nation’s rights to hunt, fish and trap. If so, then the duty to consult is triggered.

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