Williams Lake First Nation v Canada (Indian Affairs and Northern Development), 2021 FCA 30

Appeal remitted back to the Specific Claims Tribunal. The Federal Court of Appeal determined that the tribunal was unreasonable in their assessment of the Crown’s fiduciary duty owed towards the appellant First Nation. The tribunal erred by failing to give adequate consideration to applicable common law precedents. This was the result of failing to consider other less invasive and viable options in fulfillment of the Crown’s obligation of minimal impairment, where the taking or expropriation of reserve land is undertaken for a public purpose.

Indigenous Law Centre – CaseWatch Blog

This claim is rooted in the sale of 4.37 acres of land to the Pacific Great Eastern Railway Company in 1914-1915. It occurred in the grander context of British Columbia’s belated efforts to set aside reserve lands for British Columbia’s Indigenous peoples. Central to this claim is the historical backdrop in which the events unfolded and are imperative to the analysis of this case.

At the Specific Claims Tribunal [“SCT”], Williams Lake First Nation had contended that the lands had been wrongfully transferred, or alternatively, that the Crown had breached their fiduciary duty owed to the Band in respect to this transfer of land. The SCT determined that the Band’s specific claim was unfounded. Williams Lake contended that the determination made by the Supreme Court of Canada in Wewaykum was non-binding obiter, and that the application is limited to its fact, or needs to be revisited to apply to the present decision. The SCT rejected this. The SCT turned to the applicable legislation, determining that while the provisional nature of the land did implicate the application of some legislation, that ultimately, the BC Land Act, 1911 enabled the province to grant Crown land for railway purposes, regardless of whether the lands had been reserved under the Indian Act. Lastly, the SCT considered whether the Crown had discharged of their fiduciary duty, and focused their analysis on the monetary compensation, and not the unheeded wish of land in lieu of monetary compensation.

The Federal Court of Appeal determined that Williams Lake appeal must succeed, insofar that the SCT was unreasonable as they “failed to give adequate consideration to the principles established in the applicable common law precedents governing the scope of the Crown’s fiduciary duties to Indigenous peoples in respect of reserve lands”. All that was required for the construction of a canal over reserve lands was the grant of an easement, and that the Aboriginal interest must be preserved to the greatest extent practicable to preserve the taxation jurisdiction of the band (Osoyoos Indian Band v Oliver (Town), 2001 SCC 85). On this vein of analysis, the Federal Court of Appeal cites extensive precedent in line with this principle of minimal impairment, and the failure of the SCT to reach a similar conclusion to similar circumstances in the past. Moreover, the Court finds that the SCT failed to consider such options as an easement, versus a grant in fee simple. The Court determines that the matter is best remitted back to the expertise of the SCT for redetermination.

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