Canada’s Supreme Court grants aboriginal land claims

Canada’s Supreme Court grants aboriginal land claims

Mass ceremony in December 2013. (Image by Harjap Grewal via Flickr Commons)

In what is considered the most important aboriginal rights case in Canada’s history, the country’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Tsilhqot’in First Nation has full rights over 1,750 square kilometres of land in south central British Columbia.

This is the first time the country’s high court acknowledges an aboriginal’s title to a specific tract of land — a landmark decision with major implications for controversial energy projects, such as Enbridge (TSX,NYSE:ENB) Northern Gateway pipeline.

Thursday's 8-0 decision, which overturned an appeal court ruling, will essentially make it easier for First Nations to negotiate modern treaties or to fight for their land rights in court.

The decision, written by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, also makes clear that economic development on title land can continue – either with consent, or if there is no accord when the Crown has proven that the project has a “compelling and substantial” public interest.

Aboriginal leaders and politicians immediately described the decision as the mark of an epic shift in Canada-First Nations relations, and a signal the government is pushing local authorities to take treaty negotiations more seriously.

It is a “game changer”, said Jody Wilson-Raybould, regional B.C. chief of the Assembly of First Nations:

Canada’s Supreme Court grants aboriginal land claims

Canada’s Supreme Court grants aboriginal land claims

Canada’s Supreme Court grants aboriginal land claims

Justin Trudeau, leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, was one of the first politicians to welcome the verdict:

Canada’s Supreme Court grants aboriginal land claims

He added his party remains “committed to partnering with Aboriginal communities, based on inherent and treaty rights, to build a better future for all Canadians.”

Canada’s Supreme Court grants aboriginal land claims

Canada’s Supreme Court grants aboriginal land claims

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said in a statement Thursday that the government would review the "complex and significant issues" in the decision.

"Our government believes that the best way to resolve outstanding Aboriginal rights and title claims is through negotiated settlements that balance the interests of all Canadians," Valcourt said in the statement, adding that the government has concluded four treaties in B.C. since 2006, with others under negotiation.