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Eric Hovius, J.D. *


Cambridge, Ontario

*Member of the Law societies of Saskatchewan and Upper Canada (Ontario); Graduate of the University of Toronto and the University of Saskatchewan.





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Knowledge Requirements

On Knowledge Requirements
[at 31] This test can be broken down into three elements: (1) the Crown’s knowledge, actual or constructive, of a potential Aboriginal claim or right; (2) contemplated Crown conduct; and (3) the potential that the contemplated conduct may adversely affect an Aboriginal claim or right.  I will discuss each of these elements in greater detail. First, some general comments on the source and nature of the duty to consult are in order. 

         Against this background, I now turn to the three elements that give rise to a duty to consult.


(1)   Knowledge by the Crown of a Potential Claim or Right


[40]                          To trigger the duty to consult, the Crown must have real or constructive knowledge of a claim to the resource or land to which it attaches:Haida Nation, at para. 35. The threshold, informed by the need to maintain the honour of the Crown, is not high. Actual knowledge arises when a claim has been filed in court or advanced in the context of negotiations, or when a treaty right may be impacted: Mikisew Cree First Nation v. Canada (Minister of Canadian Heritage), 2005 SCC 69 (CanLII), 2005 SCC 69, [2005] 3 S.C.R. 388, para. 34. Constructive knowledge arises when lands are known or reasonably suspected to have been traditionally occupied by an Aboriginal community or an impact on rights may reasonably be anticipated.  While the existence of a potential claim is essential, proof that the claim will succeed is not. What is required is a credible claim.  Tenuous claims, for which a strong prima facie case is absent, may attract a mere duty of notice. As stated in Haida Nation, at para. 37:


Knowledge of a credible but unproven claim suffices to trigger a duty to consult and accommodate. The content of the duty, however, varies with the circumstances, as discussed more fully below. A dubious or peripheral claim may attract a mere duty of notice, while a stronger claim may attract more stringent duties. The law is capable of differentiating between tenuous claims, claims possessing a strongprima facie case, and established claims.


[41]                          The claim or right must be one which actually exists and stands to be affected by the proposed government action. This flows from the fact that the purpose of consultation is to protect unproven or established rights from irreversible harm as the settlement negotiations proceed: Newman, at p. 30, citing Haida Nation, at paras. 27, 33.


(2)   Crown Conduct or Decision


[42]                          Second, for a duty to consult to arise, there must be Crown conduct or a Crown decision that engages a potential Aboriginal right.  What is required is conduct that may adversely impact on the claim or right in question.


[43]                          This raises the question of what government action engages the duty to consult.  It has been held that such action is not confined to government exercise of statutory powers: Huu-Ay-Aht First Nation v. British Columbia (Minister of Forests), 2005 BCSC 697 (CanLII), 2005 BCSC 697, [2005] 3 C.N.L.R. 74, at paras. 94, 104; Wii’litswx v. British Columbia (Minister of Forests), 2008 BCSC 1139 (CanLII), 2008 BCSC 1139, [2008] 4 C.N.L.R. 315, at paras. 11-15.  This accords with the generous, purposive approach that must be brought to the duty to consult.


[44]                          Further, government action is not confined to decisions or conduct which have an immediate impact on lands and resources.  A potential for adverse impact suffices. Thus the duty to consult extends to “strategic, higher level decisions” that may have an impact on Aboriginal claims and rights (Woodward, at p. 5–41, emphasis omitted). Examples include the transfer of tree licences which would have permitted the cutting of old-growth forest (Haida Nation); the approval of a multi-year forest management plan for a large geographic area (Klahoose First Nation v. Sunshine Coast Forest District (District Manager), 2008 BCSC 1642 (CanLII), 2008 BCSC 1642, [2009] 1 C.N.L.R. 110); the establishment of a review process for a major gas pipeline (Dene Tha’ First Nation v. Canada (Minister of Environment), 2006 FC 1354 (CanLII), 2006 FC 1354, [2007] 1 C.N.L.R. 1, aff’d,2008 FCA 20 (CanLII), 2008 FCA 20, 35 C.E.L.R. (3d) 1); and the conduct of a comprehensive inquiry to determine a province’s infrastructure and capacity needs for electricity transmission (An Inquiry into British Columbia’s Electricity Transmission Infrastructure & Capacity Needs for the Next 30 Years, Re, 2009 CarswellBC 3637 (B.C.U.C)).  We leave for another day the question of whether government conduct includes legislative action: see R. v. Lefthand,  2007 ABCA 206 (CanLII), 2007 ABCA 206, 77 Alta. L.R. (4th) 203, at paras. 37-40.


(3)   Adverse Effect of the Proposed Crown Conduct on an Aboriginal Claim or Right


[45]                          The third element of a duty to consult is the possibility that the Crown conduct may affect the Aboriginal claim or right.  The claimant must show a causal relationship between the proposed government conduct or decision and a potential for adverse impacts on pending Aboriginalclaims or rights. Past wrongs, including previous breaches of the duty to consult, do not suffice.


[46]                          Again, a generous, purposive approach to this element is in order, given that the doctrine’s purpose, as stated by Newman, is “to recognize that actions affecting unproven Aboriginal title or rights or treaty rights can have irreversible effects that are not in keeping with the honour of the Crown” (p. 30, citing Haida Nation, at paras. 27, 33).  Mere speculative impacts, however, will not suffice.  As stated in R. v. Douglas,2007 BCCA 265 (CanLII), 2007 BCCA 265, 278 D.L.R. (4th) 653, at para. 44, there must an “appreciable adverse effect on the First Nations’ ability to exercise their aboriginal right”.  The adverse effect must be on the future exercise of the right itself; an adverse effect on a First Nation’s future negotiating position does not suffice.


[47]                          Adverse impacts extend to any effect that may prejudice a pending Aboriginal claim or right. Often the adverse effects are physical in nature. However, as discussed  in connection with what constitutes Crown conduct, high-level management decisions or structural changes to the resource’s management may also adversely affect Aboriginal claims or rights even if these decisions have no “immediate impact on the lands and resources”: Woodward, at p. 5–41. This is because such structural changes to the resources management may set the stage for further decisions that will have a direct adverse impact on land and resources.  For example, a contract that transfers power over a resource from the Crown to a private party may remove or reduce the Crown’s power to ensure that the resource is developed in a way that respects Aboriginal interests in accordance with the honour of the Crown.  The Aboriginal people would thus effectively lose or find diminished their constitutional right to have their interests considered in development decisions.  This is an adverse impact: see Haida Nation, at paras. 72-73.


[48]                          An underlying or continuing breach, while remediable in other ways, is not an adverse impact for the purposes of determining whether a particular government decision gives rise to a duty to consult.  The duty to consult is designed to prevent damage to Aboriginal claims and rights while claim negotiations are underway: Haida Nation, at para. 33.  The duty arises when the Crown has knowledge, real or constructive, of the potential or actual existence of the Aboriginal right or title “and contemplates conduct that might adversely affect it”: Haida Nation, at para. 35 (emphasis added).  This test was confirmed by the Court in Mikisew Cree in the context of treaty rights, at paras. 33-34.


[49]                          The question is whether there is a claim or right that potentially may be adversely impacted by the current government conduct or decision in question.  Prior and continuing breaches, including prior failures to consult, will only trigger a duty to consult if the present decision has the potential of causing a novel adverse impact on a present claim or existing right.  This is not to say that there is no remedy for past and continuing breaches, including previous failures to consult. As noted in Haida Nation, a breach of the duty to consult may be remedied in various ways, including the awarding of damages.  To trigger a fresh duty of consultation — the matter which is here at issue — a contemplated Crown action must put current claims and rights in jeopardy.


[50]                          Nor does the definition of what constitutes an adverse effect extend to adverse impacts on the negotiating position of an Aboriginal group. The duty to consult, grounded in the need to protect Aboriginal rights and to preserve the future use of the resources claimed by Aboriginal peoples while balancing countervailing Crown interests, no doubt may have the ulterior effect of delaying ongoing development.  The duty may thus serve not only as a tool to settle interim resource issues but also, and incidentally, as a tool to achieve longer term compensatory goals.  Thus conceived, the duty to consult may be seen as a necessary element in the overall scheme of satisfying the Crown’s constitutional duties to Canada’s First Nations.  However, cut off from its roots in the need to preserve Aboriginal interests , its purpose would be reduced to giving one side in the negotiation process an advantage over the other.