Last week the Supreme Court of Canada handed down a landmark ruling in the matter of aboriginal land ownership. The unanimous decision declared that the Tsilhqot’in First Nation holds valid title over 1,750-km2 area in central British Columbia.
The courts have mostly sided with the aboriginal peoples in land claims for 40 years. But this is the first ruling that confers title to a specific piece of land and the first to define it in specific terms.
The lands affected by the ruling are no longer Crown lands, and the Crown has only limited authority to permit use of these lands without First Nation’s consent. The Tsilhqot’in First Nation was given exclusive right to use and occupy these lands and the right to their economic benefits.
“This is not merely a right of first refusal with respect to Crown land management or usage plans,” the ruling written by Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin said. “Rather, it is a right to proactively use and manage the land.”
The decision has sweeping consequences for government and industry across the country. Where no treaties exist, governments can no longer unilaterally give permission for use of aboriginal land. Industry (the Northern Gateway pipeline comes to mind) is nervous.
Taseko Mines breathed a sigh of relief with the ruling. “Now that these matters have been settled, the opportunity exists for a constructive and mutually beneficial way forward,” said president and CEO Russell Hallbauer. “We welcome and look forward to the opportunity to re-establish a positive dialogue with the six Tsilhqot’in bands represented by the Tsilhqot’in National Government about New Prosperity and its potential to assist them with advancing community priorities.”
Not so rosy is the outlook for the Arctos coal mine belonging to Fortune Minerals. Hours after the ruling, reports surfaced that the Tahltan Nation plans to use a rights and title case to halt the project.
Time will tell how business and industry adapt to the Supreme Court’s decision. Luckily, the concept of consultation, negotiation and benefit sharing is practiced by Canada’s responsible mining companies.