R v Big River First Nation, 2019 SKCA 117

Appeal dismissed. Big River First Nation is a “person” for the purpose of sentencing for a minimum fine of $100,000 after it plead guilty to a summary conviction offence contrary to ss 238(1) and 272(1)(a) of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

Indigenous Law Centre
Indigenous CaseWatch Blog

The appellant, Big River First Nation [BRFN], pled guilty to the summary conviction offence of unlawfully failing to comply with an Environmental Protection Compliance Order, contrary to subsection 238(1) and 272(1)(a) of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act [“CEPA”]. The BRFN is a “band” within the meaning of the Indian Act. The sentencing judge found that the BRFN is an “individual” within the meaning of s 272 of CEPA and imposed a $10,000 fine (R v Big River First Nation, 2017 SKPC 16). The Crown appealed and the appeal judge found that the BRFN is a “person” within the meaning of s 272 of CEPA and substituted a sentence of a $100,000 fine (R v Big River First Nation, 2018 SKQB 109). The BRFN in this matter appeals this decision on the grounds that the appeal judge erred in law by finding that BRFN is a “person” within the meaning of s 272 of CEPA. As well, the appeal judge failed to even consider s 273 of CEPA, where the court may impose a fine that is less than the minimum amount if it is satisfied that the minimum fine would cause undue financial hardship.

The distinction as to whether BRFN should be classified as an “individual” or a “person” for the purpose of sentencing is important because of the fine minimums in s 272 of CEPA. An “individual” is subject to a $5,000 minimum sentence, while a “person” is subject to a $100,000 minimum sentence. The sentencing judge held that an Indian Act band is a sovereign nation, not a natural person or a corporation. It was his view that only a corporation can be a legal person and that a band must accordingly be an individual. He concluded that the minimum fine of $5,000 was unreasonable in light of the seriousness of the offence, but that a larger fine would place unnecessary hardship on a community such as BRFN and would damage innocent BRFN members. He imposed a fine of $10,000, noting that any destruction of the BRFN land base and water will be devastating for future generations.

The appeal judge, however, concluded that the respondent was a “person” within the meaning of s 272 of CEPA and fined them $100,000. The term “public body” is well known to the law. There is support for the proposition that the council of a First Nation is a public body (Westbank First Nation v British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority, [1999] 3 SCR 134). As for the meaning of “individual”, there is no definition of that term in CEPA or the Interpretation Act. It has, of course, been interpreted in the context of many statutes and, when used as a noun, has generally been interpreted so as to exclude anything other than a natural person (R v Carroll, 2016 ONCJ 214). There is authority for the proposition that a First Nation may fall within the scope of the term “person” (PSAC v Francis, [1982] 2 SCR 72). It was also determined that an Indian Act Band is a juridical person and is a unique, enduring, and self-governed entity that has distinct rights and obligations (Montana Band v Canada (TD), [1998] 2 FC 3). That supports the conclusion that “person” in s 272(1) includes “public bodies” that are neither bodies corporate nor individuals.

CEPA applies to reserve lands. It also contains mechanisms designed to enable the development of regulations and other measures to bridge the regulatory gap between non-reserve lands, where provincial and municipal laws apply, and reserve lands, where they do not. Those mechanisms provide for the participation of and exercise of jurisdiction by Indigenous governments and the incorporation of Indigenous knowledge. The purpose of sentencing for offences under CEPA is to contribute to respect for the law that is there to protect the environment and human health through the imposition of just sanctions. These objectives are for deterrence and to denounce unlawful conduct that damages or creates a risk of damage to the environment or human health. It reinforces the “polluter pays” principle by ensuring that offenders are held responsible for effective clean-up and environmental restoration.

BRFN submitted it should have the benefit of s 273 if BRFN is found a “person”. From the evidence submitted, the Court could not reasonably support a finding that the BRFN would suffer undue financial hardship from the minimum $100,000 fine.

 

 

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