Deference with a Difference

Dunsmuir and Aboriginal Rights

Janna Promislow, Thompson Rivers University

The recent Supreme Court decision in Ktunaxa Nation v BC (Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Operations), 2017 SCC 54 treats both Charter and s. 35 rights in a single judicial review, providing an interesting case study to identify and consider points of difference between the application of deference in Aboriginal rights versus Charter contexts. The case involved a regulatory approval allowing the development of the Jumbo Glacier Resort, a proposed ski resort near Invermere, BC, on land identified by the Ktunaxa Nation as “Qat’muk”, the home of the “Grizzly Bear Spirit”. The majority, written by McLachlin CJC and Rowe J, rejected the claim that the Minister’s approval had violated the Ktunaxa’s freedom of religion under s. 2(a) of the Charter. The Minister’s conclusion that the duty to consult and accommodate the Ktunaxa’s claimed rights had been satisfied was also upheld as reasonable. The majority’s approach might be described as “separate paths” for Aboriginal and Charter rights, with the distinct breaches involved leading to mutually exclusive grounds for judicial review. The concurring minority, written by Moldaver J, agreed with the majority on the s. 35 duty to consult, but found an infringement of s. 2(a) that was nevertheless proportionate to the statutory objectives under the Doré/Loyola framework. In contrast to the majority, Moldaver J’s approach integrated Indigenous and Charter interests, at least in regard to the Charter right, such that the Indigenous character of the religious claim was significant, and the accommodations negotiated through s. 35 consultations were critical to the determination that the Minister’s decision was ultimately reasonable (an integration that was incomplete: see Naiomi Metallic’s post for a discussion of the definition of the statutory objectives in the proportionality analysis).

In spite of these quite different approaches, both the majority and minority addressed the question of whether s. 2(a) had been infringed by the Minister’s decision as a threshold question of constitutional law that attracted de novo review on the correctness standard,[1] achieving uniformity in their methodology of review that was absent in Mouvement laïque québécois v Saguenay (City), 2015 SCC 16. The duty to consult in Ktunaxa Nation (like many other cases), however, was not about whether a known right had been infringed, but rather the interim protection of “potential, but yet unproven” rights (Haida Nation v BC, 2004 SCC 73 at para 27). The process of consultation and ultimate decision attracted reasonableness, in line with the existing law on the duty to consult and in step with deferential review of discretionary decisions more generally. But the Aboriginal right or rights at stake were not determined before deference was applied. As McLachlin CJC and Rowe J emphasized, judicial review of administrative decisions for breach of the duty to consult is not the forum for pronouncements on the validity of Aboriginal rights claims: “To permit this would invite uncertainty and discourage final settlement of alleged rights through the proper processes.” (at para 84). By contrast, the lack of analysis of the Charter right by the Minister was no obstacle to the Court considering the scope of Charter claim on judicial review (at para 60). What explains this “incongruent” difference?

McLachlin CJC and Rowe J point to the need for a full evidential record to determine an Aboriginal right, beyond what might be entered for the purpose of the duty to consult, which requires only a preliminary assessment of the strength of the claimed rights (at para 84). The task of proving the existence of historically grounded Aboriginal rights may well be different from the task of demonstrating that the scope of a known Charter right includes protection in a given case. But is the difference of approach grounded in practical concerns about the proof of the rights (difference 1)? Or is it grounded in the jurisprudence that dictates a case-by-case proof of rights under s. 35, versus a proof of violation of a right under the Charter (difference 2)? If the practical concerns are the obstacle, Nova Scotia v Martin, 2003 SCC 54 and Paul v BC, 2003 SCC 55 suggest that other considerations take precedence over practical concerns in relation to access to constitutional arguments before administrative decisions-makers, including s. 35 rights. If difference 2 is the obstacle, the question becomes whether government’s obligation to consider the constitution when interpreting statutes and discretionary authority is really all that different when it comes to Aboriginal rights, including the “potential, yet unproven” ones. The discussion of Charter values after Doré, and the subsequent treatment of challenges that go to the scope of the rights on a correctness standard (such as in Ktunaxa Nation, and the majority in MLQ v Sagnuenay), might demonstrate that when a remedy is sought for an alleged breach of a Charter right, the values at stake transform into a dispute about the right that requires adjudication and articulation, whether by courts or tribunals, whether addressed de novo or not. Are the values behind Aboriginal rights not “rights-like” enough to require or allow for parallel treatment?

The second difference points to a third: the premise that Aboriginal rights and/or their accommodation should be articulated through negotiation. As the Supreme Court has stated repeatedly, in one way or another, s. 35(1) “provides a solid constitutional base upon which subsequent negotiations can take place” (R v Sparrow, [1990] 1 SCR 1075 at 1105; see also Delgamuukw v BC, [1997] 3 SCR 1010 at para 186). The negotiation of rights recognition gives rise to the constitutional duty to consult and accommodate to prevent the unilateral exploitation of claimed resources “during the process of proving and resolving the Aboriginal claim to that resource,” a process that the Court recognizes “may take time, sometimes a very long time” (Haida Nation, at paras 26-27). In the interim, however, the Crown retains the right and authority to continue managing the resources subject to Aboriginal claims, and to make “decisions in the face of disagreement as to the adequacy of its response to Aboriginal concerns.” (Haida Nation, at para 45). As McLachlin CJC and Rowe J acknowledge in Ktunaxa Nation, the consultation and accommodation process conducted by the Minister will not satisfy the Ktunaxa, “[b]ut in the difficult period between claim assertion and claim resolution, consultation and accommodation, imperfect as they may be, are the best available legal tools in the reconciliation basket” (at para 86).

If Aboriginal rights are “TBD,” what are “the proper processes” for the determination of Aboriginal rights that the majority in Ktunaxa Nation alludes to? A recent policy announcement by the Trudeau government suggests that creating specialized mechanisms for recognizing Aboriginal rights is finally on the policy agenda. The status quo is that Indigenous peoples can litigate their claims or attempt to work through comprehensive claims processes in relation to title and other s. 35 rights. It is old news that these treaty processes are deeply troubled, and that both litigation and negotiation generally take “a very long time,” a euphemism that buries concerns about expense burdens and access to justice. In Ktunaxa Nation, the majority plainly want to support the “proper” resolution of rights claims, but they do not question the access to “proper processes” before they defer to the Minister’s assessment of the Qat’muk sacred site claim, as part of their review of the adequacy of the consultation process under the reasonableness standard (at para 100). The implication of deference here is that if government manages legal risk by consulting beyond what the legal duty might require in relation to “weak” rights claims (as this particular Ktunaxa claim was assessed, reasonably so according to the Court), it is unnecessary for the Minister or the courts to fully articulate and assess that claim. How does such deference serve to support “a solid constitutional base” for negotiations? This point of deference in Ktunaxa Nation, however, is less about difference and more about the common administrative law theme of inconsistency given that earlier cases establish that deference is not owed on the preliminary assessment of the strength of the right and related determinations of the scope of consultation obligations: Beckman v Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation, 2010 SCC 53 at para 48; Haida Nation at para 63.

A fourth difference to consider is structural, relating deference to the obligation to implement and respect constitutional rights in administrative decision-making. Under s. 32, the Charter applies to administrative delegates such that they must interpret statutes and make decisions that accord with the Charter. Deference is thus owed to administrative decision-makers who properly take Charter rights and values into account in their decisions because their area expertise includes respecting the Charter. Section 35 did not come with an application clause. Instead, the obligation to make decisions that respect and implement rights stems from the honour of the Crown. Haida Nation established that aspects of the duty to consult may be delegated but the honour of the Crown itself cannot be delegated (at para 53). In Clyde River v Petroleum Geo-Services Inc., 2017 SCC 40, the Supreme Court further explained: “While the Crown may rely on steps undertaken by a regulatory agency to fulfill its duty to consult in whole or in part and, where appropriate, accommodate, the Crown always holds ultimate responsibility for ensuring consultation is adequate.” (at para 22). “Reliance” rather than delegation ensures that at least some issues of accommodation and disputes about claims will find their way back to the ‘real’ Crown (see Clyde River, paras 28-29). This approach might suggest respect for “nation-to-nation” treaty relations (and arguably fail), but it also might signal the ongoing political quality of Aboriginal rights, even when the rights at stake were recognized through a modern land claim agreement, as they were in Clyde River. Why, then, is the responsibility to respect for these rights treated differently from Charter rights?

The incompletely delegable quality of the honour of the Crown appears to indicate that administrative expertise is limited, suggesting a re-examination of the premises for judicial deference to non-Crown agencies in such contexts is required. Deference to decisions by Ministers, whose actions directly represent the Crown, might also be inappropriate, or based on a different theory altogether: instead of, or in addition to, the “politics of deference”, there is an ongoing politics of sovereignty at stake. Alternatively, having waited for a negotiated solution for long enough, the courts might take a different tact by reviewing Aboriginal rights as parallel to Charter rights, and thus recognizing these rights as also “ripe” for implementation. Deference under that approach would presumably be more rigorous than reasonableness as it applies to review of discretionary decisions more generally; see, for example, the treatment of reconciliation, the honour of the Crown, and reasonableness in Kainaiwa/Blood Tribe v Alberta, 2017 ABQB 107.

Although it is obvious to me at least that constitutional Aboriginal rights must be implemented as rights, and on par with Charter rights, this view does not imply that approaches to deference in relation to Charter rights should necessarily be applied in relation to Aboriginal rights. Rather, the preceding comparison and identification of points of differences in the application of deference to the review of decisions implicating Aboriginal rights is the start of a bigger discussion. Do the differences identified hold up? Are they principled? Should there be deference in the review of government decisions that affect Aboriginal rights, and if so, why? And how should it be carried out? These are questions for another day.


[1] There is of course much to be said on the freedom of religion aspects of the decision; see, for e.g., Howard Kislowicz and Senwung Luk

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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