Pleadings relating to Labrador not struck from civil action in Quebec against private companies based on violations of Aboriginal rights and title within Innu territory in both Quebec and Labrador. Neither nature of the allegations nor interprovincial jurisdictional immunity prevents the Quebec Superior Court from hearing entire action. Access to justice and proportionality also favour allowing Innu Nations to set out arguments in full.
The Attorney General of Newfoundland and Labrador appealed from the dismissal of an application to strike pleadings. Their application to strike concerned certain paragraphs in an originating application filed by the Innu of Uashat and of Mani-Utenam and the Innu of Matimekush-Lac John. The applicants are two Innu Nations that claim Aboriginal rights and title to a vast traditional territory called the “Nitassinan” that is situated on the Quebec-Labrador Peninsula, including areas within the provincial boundaries of both Quebec and Labrador. The Attorney General sought to strike paragraphs relating to Labrador in this matter before the Quebec Superior Court. In the appellant’s view, the Innu are attempting to obtain recognition of Aboriginal title and rights in Labrador, which the appellant submits are real rights over which the courts of Quebec have no jurisdiction. The Attorney General also claimed that the Innu Nations’ action engages interprovincial immunity in that Quebec’s Superior Court cannot have jurisdiction over the interests of the Newfoundland and Labrador Crown.
The Innu Nations are not seeking recognition of their Aboriginal rights and title against the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador or any other Crown government. Instead, they are seeking civil liability and damages against two private companies—the Iron Ore Company of Canada (“IOC”) and the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway Company (“QNS&LR”)—in connection with the IOC’s industrial development of iron ore extraction in the Labrador Trough beginning in the 1950s. The Innu Nations claim that IOC and QNS&LR have violated their Aboriginal rights and title within Nitassinan, and also claim Charter violations as well as other forms of civil liability.
While Haida Nation v. British Columbia (Minister of Forests) clarified that the duty to consult Aboriginal nations rests solely with the Crown, this does not eliminate the eventual liability of mining companies that obtain rights to extract natural resources on a given territory. Indeed, “[i]f they act negligently in circumstances where they owe Aboriginal peoples a duty of care, or if they breach contracts with Aboriginal peoples or deal with them dishonestly, they [third parties] may be held legally liable.” This is the foundation upon which the Innu Nations have built their action against IOC and QNS&LR.
The Court of Appeal agreed with the trial judge’s conclusion that the Innu Nations’ claims are part of a “mixed” action in which both recognition of a real right and the execution of an obligation are sought. This means that aspects of the claim concerning Labrador may be dealt with in Quebec. “Real” actions concern judicial recognition or protection of property rights, whereas “personal” actions seek judicial recognition of obligations, whether contractual or extra-contractual. The Court of Appeal stated that it is not possible to describe Aboriginal rights in terms of traditional property law concepts because they are sui generis. These rights are also collective, rather than individual, which in itself poses classification challenges within the realm of property law. The Innu Nations claim various types of Aboriginal rights have been infringed by IOC and QNS&LR, including Aboriginal title, Aboriginal harvesting rights, and others. These Aboriginal rights cannot be classified as real rights. In any event, they are ancillary to the Innu Nations’ lawsuit, which is focused on civil liability, damages, and injunctive relief against the private company defendants.
As for the appellant’s assertion that the Quebec Superior Court does not have jurisdiction because the “property in dispute” is located in Labrador, that must also fail. The Court of Appeal was of the view that interprovincial jurisdictional immunity could not be an obstacle to the jurisdiction of the Quebec courts over this dispute, at least not at this early stage. The Innu Nations admitted that the declarations the Superior Court makes with respect to Aboriginal rights over the Nitassinan will not bind the governments of Canada, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador. If the Innu wish to have their broad Aboriginal claims to Labrador recognized, they will have to negotiate with the government of Newfoundland and Labrador or seize the courts of that province in the context of a global claim. However, as discussed above, this is not the objective of their current action. If the appellant wishes, it may participate in the proceedings before the Superior Court in the action brought by the Innu Nations against private companies in order to assert its rights and interests. The appellant suffers no prejudice from the continuation of the action in its current form before the Superior Court of Quebec.
The Court of Appeal also stated that the application to strike raised fundamental questions of access to justice and proportionality in relation to an action concerning Aboriginal rights in an interprovincial context. According to the pleadings, the Innu Nations historically pursued their activities across the Nitassinan territory freely and without regard for borders. The trial judge noted that the principles of law which govern Aboriginal rights apply across all of Canada, again without regard to borders. The appellant wished to sever and compartmentalize at an early stage aspects of the Innu’s application that would concern, on one hand, the province of Quebec, and on the other, Labrador. Since the Innu historically ignored the border, the trial judge found it doubtful that the evidence and traditional customs addressed by Elder witnesses would draw a distinction between what occurs in Newfoundland and Labrador as opposed to Quebec. The Court of Appeal agreed that it would not be in the interests of justice to prematurely sever from the Innu Nations’ action any references to Labrador, to the rights the Innu may claim over this territory, or to the activities of the IOC and the QNS&LR. The Innu Nations should be able to set out their arguments, not piecemeal but in full, before the court that has jurisdiction over their action against IOC and the QNS&LR.
Note: On November 15, 2018, the Supreme Court of Canada granted the Attorney General’s application for leave to appeal.