Ross River Dena Council v Yukon, 2020 YKCA 10

Appeal dismissed. The Ross River Dena Council does not yet have established title, thereby no right to exclusive use and occupation of the claimed lands. It did not identify any adverse effect on its claim other than impacts on wildlife. The fact that hunters might enter the land is not, without more, an adverse effect.

Indigenous Law Centre
Indigenous CaseWatch Blog

Ross River Dena Council [“RRDC”] appeals from an order dismissing its claim for declaratory relief. The key point of contention is the assertion that the Yukon’s issuance of hunting licences and seals under the Wildlife Act, adversely affects RRDC’s claim of Aboriginal title.

RRDC is part of the Kaska Nation, who are one of the “[A]boriginal peoples of Canada” referred to in s 35(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982. The land subject to RRDC’s title claim is traditional Kaska territory situated in the Yukon [“Ross River Area”] and it is acknolwledged that RRDC has a strong prima facie case for its claim to Aboriginal title over the Ross River Area. The strength of the claim requires the Yukon to engage in deep consultation with RRDC whenever the Yukon contemplates conduct that might adversely affect the title claimed (Haida Nation v British Columbia (Minister of Forests), [2005] 1 CNLR 72). The parties have been in negotiations for several years. To date, RRDC’s claim has not been resolved by either a treaty or a declaration.

RRDC asked specifically for a declaration that the issuance of hunting licences and seals might adversely affect the claimed Aboriginal title of RRDC’s members in the Ross River Area and that the Yukon must consult with respect to alleged potential adverse impacts on the “incidents of Aboriginal title” (Tsilhqot’in Nation v British Columbia, [2014] 3 CNLR 362).

There is a distinction between Aboriginal title that is established and that which is asserted. Established Aboriginal title confers ownership rights similar to those associated with fee simple. These ownership rights include the right to decide how the land will be used; the right to enjoy and occupy the land; the right to possess the land; the right to the economic benefits of the land; and the right to pro-actively use and manage it (Tsilhqot’in Nation; Delgamuukw v British Columbia, [1998] 1 CNLR 14).

A government must demonstrate that non-consensual incursions are undertaken in accordance with the duty to consult; that they are justified on the basis of a compelling and substantial public interest; and that they are consistent with the Crown’s fiduciary duty to the Aboriginal title holders (Tsilhqot’in Nation). RRDC’s title is not yet established. It has only a claimed title, albeit a strong one. Aboriginal title that is claimed, but not established, does not confer ownership rights.

Where title is not established, the duty to consult arises when the Crown has real or constructive knowledge of the potential existence of an Aboriginal right or title and contemplates action which might adversely affect that right or title (Haida Nation). The purpose of the duty to consult is not to provide claimants immediately with what they could be entitled to upon proving or settling their claims. Rather, it is intended as a mechanism to preserve Aboriginal interests while land and resource claims are ongoing, or where the proposed action may interfere with a claimed right or title (Rio Tinto Alcan Inc v Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, [2010] 4 CNLR 250 [“Rio Tinto”]).

The legal test for determining whether the duty to consult arises was broken down into three elements: 1) the Crown’s knowledge, actual or constructive, of a potential Aboriginal claim or right; 2) contemplated Crown conduct; and 3) the potential that the contemplated conduct may adversely affect an Aboriginal claim or right. The third element is at the heart of this appeal. RRDC argues that by issuing hunting licences and seals, the Yukon interferes with its claimed right to exclusive use and occupation of the land which has the potential to adversely affect the claimed title by allowing the land to be used and occupied for hunting by people other than RRDC members. RRDC’s position is not that hunters entering the land cause any cognizable harm to the land (aside from potential wildlife management harm), but that their presence on the land is itself a violation of the incidents of title which RRDC asserts, specifically the exclusive use and occupation of the land. This requires consultation.

The Court determined in this matter that issuing hunting licences does not, in and of itself, give the holder of the hunting licence the right to enter land that it could not otherwise enter. A right to hunt within a region does not confer a right to enter private property situated within that region. A hunting licence is not a defence to trespass (Wildlife Act). Also, RRDC’s argument is problematic in that it can assert a right, at the present time, to control who enters the claimed land and, therefore, Yukon must consult with RRDC whenever it contemplates action that would allow or encourage others to enter the land.

RRDC has not established Aboriginal title to the Ross River Area; the process is still at the claim stage. Without an established claim, RRDC does not have an exclusive right to control the use and occupation of the land at present, nor does it have a right to veto government action. What RRDC expressed is a concern that individuals to whom licences and seals have been issued will enter the Ross River Area. That is all. It did not identify how this would have an “appreciable adverse effect” on RRDC’s ability to control the use and occupation of the land in the future, or would otherwise adversely affect its rights or interests, other than potential impacts on wildlife.

No specific concerns have been articulated. There is only an argument that the issuance of hunting licences and seals interferes with RRDC’s right to exclusive use and occupancy of the Ross River Area at the present time. As noted, however, this is a right that RRDC does not currently have. Without explaining how the presence of hunters on its claimed territory could potentially adversely affect its claimed title, the duty to consult as a means to preserve interests in the interim is not engaged.

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