Paper: The Constitutional and Fiduciary Duties of the Provincial Crown

The Impact of Recent Decisions on the Duty to Consult & the Determination of Aboriginal Rights

This paper was prepared by Barbara Fisher, Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP, for the Continuing Legal Education course materials Aboriginal Law Conference-2002, March, 2002 and is reproduced with permission.

The full paper is available via pdf download at the bottom of the page.

The Crown's duty to consult with a First Nation about Crown regulation or activity that affects the First Nation arises from a variety of legal sources. The first source emerges from the Crown's historical fiduciary relationship with aboriginal people. The common law duty, given constitutional protection under the Constitution Act, 1982, has been expanded to include a duty to consult about possible infringements of s. 35(1) rights. In addition, a statutory regime may set out specific duties to consult within the context of an approval process, government policy may establish consultation guidelines and finally, the rules of natural justice and administrative fairness also dictate to some degree the extent of the duty to consult.

The historical fiduciary relationship has been primarily between the federal Crown and aboriginal people. However, more recently, courts have identified a similar relationship between the provincial Crown and the aboriginal peoples of the province. The scope of this fiduciary relationship and the duties arising from it are still being defined through litigation.

Provincial jurisdiction over lands and resources, and provincial regulation and activity on Crown land has resulted in more frequent conflicts between First Nations' aboriginal rights and interests, the provincial Crown and third parties. According to recent authority from the B.C. Court of Appeal, the province does not have the constitutional jurisdiction to authorize any official, decision-maker or tribunal to determine the aboriginal rights of any First Nation. However, the province may still infringe aboriginal rights through valid provincial laws and regulations provided such infringement is justified. Only a court may ultimately determine whether a First Nation has aboriginal rights, what the scope of such rights are, whether there has been an infringement in any particular case and if so, whether such infringement is justified.

While there are as yet no court decisions defining the nature and scope of any First Nation's aboriginal rights, the Crown has a considerable amount of information about British Columbia First Nations' interests, since over 2/3 of these First Nations have been in the treaty process since 1994. Therefore, the Crown should be in a position to reasonably assess assertions of aboriginal rights in any particular case.

In addition to being a key element in the infringement and justification analysis, consultation is a practical requirement. However, because of the limitations on the province's jurisdiction, it must consult only about possible infringements of aboriginal rights and about the First Nation's interests (outside the constitutional context) in the lands or resources at issue.

The content of the Crown's duty to consult has not changed substantially over the past number of years. Regardless of the legal source of the duty, the province has for a long time been required, from a practical and economic perspective, to consult with First Nations about the use of resources in their traditional territories.

The consultation exercise essentially requires the following elements:

  • The Crown fully informing the First Nation about the proposed regulation, permit, approval or activity;
  • The First Nation fully informing the Crown about its assertion of rights, traditional practices, interests and concerns;
  • The Crown assessing the First Nation's assertion of aboriginal rights and the scope of those rights;
  • The Crown considering its fiduciary obligations to the First Nation and the possibility that its proposed action might infringe aboriginal rights;
  • The Crown considering the First Nation's interests in the affected area;
  • The Crown seriously considering alternative courses of action to address the First Nation's interests and to avoid possibly infringing its aboriginal rights.

In the writer's view, the courts have not done an adequate job of providing clear direction about the duty to consult that is conducive to achieving certainty or negotiated settlements. The courts have not clearly delineated the content of the duty to consult stemming from fiduciary, constitutional, common law or statutory requirements. Many decisions focus on the constitutional justification analysis, which is one element (albeit an important one) of consultation, but an element that creates a more adversarial environment for negotiation. Other cases focus on administrative law issues of procedural fairness, with varying results depending on the scrutiny of analysis. It is not clear whether a comprehensive statutory consultation regime that considers the Crown's fiduciary, constitutional and common law duties is sufficient for all purposes. Finally, the courts appear to separate process from substance. This is problematic, because the substance of a right in issue is relevant in determining the appropriate process to consult about activities that may affect that right.