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Tsilhqot’in land claim decision could affect forest products companies


September 10, 2014
By Pulp & Paper Canada

A recent Supreme Court decision on the land claim of the Tsilhqot’in Nation changes the landscape and forest products companies may get caught up in the turmoil, warns Aboriginal legal expert James O’Reilly.

A recent Supreme Court decision on the land claim of the Tsilhqot’in Nation changes the landscape and forest products companies may get caught up in the turmoil, warns Aboriginal legal expert James O’Reilly.

In June, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) validated the Tsilhqot’in Nation’s claim that it is the owner of a roughly 1,700-square kilometer parcel of land in British Columbia. The ruling could have far-reaching implications for the resource sector.

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“The decision is the first time that an Aboriginal group has proved Aboriginal title over a significant land base in Canada,” writes Vancouver-based law firm Miller Titerle + Company LLP, in Impacts of Tsilhqot’in Part 1: A Layperson’s Guide to Tsilhqot’in Nation V. British Columbia.

The SCC judgment doesn’t only raise red flags in B.C., where resource companies may have thought they were safely installed on Crown land. First Nations treaty and land claims are in play across Canada.

In the Tsilhqot’in land title case, the SCC determined that the area in dispute was Tsilhqot’in land and that, “governments and others seeking to use the land must obtain the consent of the Aboriginal title holders.”

The SCC notes that in most of Canada, “indigenous peoples gave up their claim to land in exchange for reservations and other promises, but, with minor exceptions, this did not happen in British Columbia.”

The reality, however, is far larger than B.C. “A lot of people are saying that the Supreme Court ruling applies just to B.C. The significance [of the SCC decision] is way, way wider,” says James O’Reilly, a lawyer with O’Reilly & Associes Inc., in Montreal. “In parts of the Northwest Territories there are no treaties. The Metis have special rights. All the Maritime Provinces are unsettled. Agreements are not entirely settled in the Yukon. There are unsettled lands in Quebec. A lot of Aboriginal groups across Canada were missed in treaties; for example, in Ontario and Alberta. In the areas with treaties there are a number of groups saying ‘we were not caught in treaties and assert Aboriginal rights.’

“For all of Canada I’d say that for twenty to twenty-five per cent of the land, title claims are unsettled. [Resource companies] are at peril to have their rights suspended, for sure.”

O’Reilly has nearly 50 years of experience as a specialist in Aboriginal rights, treaty rights and the self-governing rights of Aboriginal peoples. His many cases include landmark resource development cases brought on behalf of First Nations in Quebec and Alberta. His clients include the James Bay Crees, the Lubicon Lake Cree Nation and Stoney Tribe in Alberta, and the Mohawk Nation and Miawpukek Micmac in Newfoundland.

 “A lot of people would say we are ranting and raving, but this is what is actually taking place. I am involved with a number of these cases across Canada,” O’Reilly says.

For further discussion of forest industry relations with First Nations, see the September/October issue of Pulp & Paper Canada.