Ross River Dena Council v. Government of Yukon: “Open Entry” Mining Claims and the Duty to Consult

In Ross River Dena Council v. Government of Yukon, 2012 YKCA 14, the Yukon Court of Appeal unanimously held that the Government of Yukon has a duty to consult with First Nations before recording mineral claims staked in areas claimed by First Nations, and that merely providing notice of mining claims will not be sufficient to meet that duty.

The “duty to consult” is a duty on the part of Canada’s governments (the “Crown”) to engage in a process of consultation with First Nations where proposed Crown conduct may adversely affect Aboriginal claims or rights.

The decision may have implications for similar mining claim regimes in British Columbia and other Canadian jurisdictions.

On February 25, 2013, the Government of Yukon filed an application seeking leave to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Background

The plaintiff, the Ross River Dena Council (the “Council”), claimed Aboriginal title and rights to a portion of traditional territory known as the “Ross River Area”. The claim covered approximately 13% of the Yukon.

The dispute focused on the mining claim system established by the Quartz Mining Act, S.Y. 2003, c. 14 (the “Act”), which provides that an individual may acquire mineral rights simply by physically staking a claim and then recording it with a designated regulatory authority.

Once a mining claim is recorded, the Act provides that a claimant is entitled to the minerals within the claim and may conduct certain exploration activities on the land without further authorization and without notice to the Government of Yukon. Such a system is typically referred to as an “open entry” or “free entry” mineral claim system.

The regulatory authority’s role in registering a mineral claim is purely ministerial in nature. That is, the authority does not possess any discretion to refuse to record a claim that complies with the requirements of the Act.

The Council argued that this system permits exploration activities potentially adverse to its asserted Aboriginal title and rights, and that the Government  has a duty to consult before recording mining claims within the claimed territory.

The chambers judge held that the Government’s practices in respect of new mineral claims under the Act did not measure up to the consultation requirements required by the law, but held that those requirements would be satisfied by a scheme under which the Government provided notice to the Council of newly-recorded quartz mining claims within its traditional territory.

The Council appealed, arguing that consultation must take place before the recording of mineral claims, and that consultation requires more than mere notice of new claims.

Law

The law provides that the Crown has a duty to consult with First Nations with respect to contemplated Crown activities when:

  • The Crown has knowledge, actual or constructive, of the potential existence of a First Nations claim or right;
  • The Crown contemplates conduct or a decision; and
  • The conduct or decision may adversely affect the First Nations claim or right.

The duty to consult is grounded in the honour of the Crown. While the treaty claims process is ongoing, there is an implied duty to consult with First Nations claimants on matters that may adversely affect their treaty and Aboriginal rights, and, where appropriate, to accommodate those interests in the spirit of reconciliation.

It is not necessary for a First Nation to definitely establish a claim or right for the duty to consult to arise. The depth of the required consultation in connection with an unproven claim increases with:

  • The strength of the prima facie First Nations claim; and
  • The seriousness of the impact on the underlying claim or treaty right.

As a result, a dubious or peripheral claim may attract a mere duty of notice, while a stronger claim may attract more stringent duties.

The remedy for a breach of the duty to consult varies with the situation. The Crown’s failure to consult can lead to a number of remedies ranging from injunctive relief against the conduct, to damages, to an order to carry out the consultation prior to proceeding further with the proposed Crown conduct.

Decision

The question on appeal was whether the three elements of the duty to consult were present where the Government sought to record a mineral claim within territory subject to Aboriginal rights and title claims.

There was no dispute that the first element of the duty to consult was satisfied, since the Government had knowledge of the Council’s asserted Aboriginal rights.

There was also no doubt that the third element of the duty to consult was met. The regulatory regime could allow mineral claims to be granted without regard to asserted Aboriginal title, and could also allow exploratory work that might adversely affect claimed Aboriginal rights to be carried out without consultation.

Accordingly, the key issue in dispute was whether the second element of the duty to consult was met. That is, the question was whether the recording of a mineral claim under the Act qualified as “contemplated Crown conduct” despite the fact that the regulatory authority had no discretion in respect of the granting of the mineral claim provided that the requirements of the Act were met.

Mr. Justice Groberman, writing for the Yukon Court of Appeal, rejected the notion that “the absence of statutory discretion in relation to the recording of claims under the … Act absolve[d] the Crown of its duty to consult.” In the Court’s view, the duty to consult “exists to ensure that the Crown does not manage its resources in a manner that ignores Aboriginal claims”, and that “[s]tatutory regimes that do not allow for consultation and fail to provide any other equally effective means to acknowledge and accommodate Aboriginal claims are defective and cannot be allowed to subsist.”

The Court also held that the duty to consult required more than the mere provision of notice of mining claims. Although the Court acknowledged that “the open entry system … under the … Act has considerable value in maintaining a viable mining industry and encouraging prospecting” and “that the system is important both historically and economically”, the Court held that the system had to be modified “in order for the Crown to act in accordance with its constitutional duties.”

However, the Court did not specify precisely how the regime could be brought into conformity with the requirements of the duty to consult. In the Court’s view, “[w]hat is required is that consultations be meaningful, and that the system allow for accommodation to take place, where required, before claimed Aboriginal title or rights are adversely affected.”

In particular, where “exploration activities are expected to have serious or long-lasting adverse effects on claimed Aboriginal rights, … [t]he affected First Nation must be provided with notice of the proposed activities and, where appropriate, an opportunity to consult prior to the activity taking place.” In doing so, “the Crown must ensure that it maintains the ability to prevent or regulate activities where it is appropriate to do so.”

In the result, the Court declared that the Government had a duty to consult “in determining whether mineral rights … within [the claimed lands] are to be made available to third parties under the provisions of the … Act.” The Court also declared that the Government “has a duty to notify and, where appropriate, consult with and accommodate the plaintiff before allowing any mining exploration activities to take place within the [claimed territory], to the extent that those activities may prejudicially affect Aboriginal rights claimed”.

The Court suspended these declarations for one year in order to permit the Government time, if it wished, to make statutory and regulatory changes in order to provide for appropriate consultation.

The decision may have implications for similar “open entry” mining claim regimes in British Columbia and other Canadian jurisdictions. Although the decision is binding precedent only in the Yukon, the judges of the Yukon Court of Appeal are comprised of the judges of the British Columbia Court of Appeal. Accordingly, the decision is likely to be highly influential in British Columbia.

On February 25, 2013, the Government of Yukon filed an application seeking leave to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada.

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