Tough legal questions over Aboriginal rights and land claims were discussed over the weekend at a conference in Winnipeg.
Dozens of scholars and legal representatives, some of whom were from Saskatchewan, attended the two-day affair at the University of Manitoba.
A portion of the conference focused on the Tsilhqot'in First Nation’s challenge of Aboriginal title in British Columbia.
In a case spanning several years and 339 days in various courtrooms, the case wound its way to the Supreme Court where the nation’s highest court recognized Aboriginal title in Tsilhqot'in territory that semi-nomadic Indigenous nations could claim a land ownership rights or something akin to it through this concept of Aboriginal title.
Experts differ over what impact the ruling has outside of B.C., which has no numbered treaties.
However, many believe it will affect the understanding of Canadian Aboriginal law.
One paragraph in the Supreme Court’s written ruling on the Tsilhqot'in case has the potential to “haunt” First Nations, according to legal expert Peter Hutchins.
“The court said throughout the east of Canada the Crown entered into treaties whereby the Indigenous peoples gave up their claims to land in exchange for reservations and other promises,” he says. “That is not how the First Nations across the Prairies understood their treaties. I just don’t think it’s appropriate for the Supreme Court to make a statement like that which can be used by government against First Nations.”
The interpretation of each case is also a matter of debate according to Aimee Craft, an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba.
“Some people think these cases are wins, others don’t agree, others think these decisions are holding us back,” she says, noting the logging rights case involving the Grassy Narrows First Nation as an example.
This case pitted the Ontario government’s assertion it had the right to issue a license for logging operations in parts of Treaty 3 territory, known more commonly as the Keewatin portion.
In the end the court partially affirmed this stance.
“The ruling was it (Ontario government) can; it has that ability to take up land but has to do in a way that is justified and through a process of consultation and accommodation,” Craft says.
Hutchins says despite all the victories Aboriginal communities have made against the government, it still feels like they are forced to start from the beginning whenever they enter the courtroom.
One audience member attending the conference told organizers he thought governments and corporations were all on different levels when it came to dealing with honour and good faith.
“They have different understandings of what those terms mean,” he says.