Supreme Court

Aboriginal Peoples

Government acted with persistent inattention and failed to act diligently

Following Confederation, Canada obtained title to Red River Settlement. French-speaking Roman Catholic Metis, dominant demographic group in Settlement, resisted control by English-speaking Protestant settlers. Canada agreed, in s. 31 of Manitoba Act, 1870 (Can.), to grant 1.4 million acres of land to Metis children and, pursuant to s. 32, to recognize existing landholdings. Difficulties arose in determining who had right to share of land. Two successive allotments abandoned. Ultimately, lands distributed randomly to eligible Metis children. Canadian government eventually realized number of eligible Metis children underestimated and issued scrip redeemable for land to remaining eligible children. Scrip, based on 1879 land prices, did not permit acquisition of same amount of land in 1885. Position of Metis in Red River Settlement deteriorated over following decades as white settlers increased. Metis applied for declaration that in implementing Manitoba Act, federal Crown breached fiduciary obligations owed to Metis and federal Crown failed to implement Manitoba Act in manner consistent with honour of Crown. Trial judge dismissed claim for declaration, finding that ss. 31 and 32 of Manitoba Act did not give rise to fiduciary duty or duty based on honour of Crown and, in any event, claims barred by limitations and doctrine of laches. Manitoba Court of Appeal dismissed Metis’ appeal but appeal to Supreme Court of Canada allowed in part. While Crown undertook discretionary control of administration of land grants, obligations enshrined in ss. 31 and 32 of Manitoba Act did not impose fiduciary duty on government because no pre-existing communal aboriginal interest held by Metis; their interest in land arose from personal history rather than shared distinct Metis identity. Nor was there undertaking by Crown to act in Metis’ best interests. Honour of Crown nevertheless required Crown to take broad purposive approach to interpretation of promise and act diligently to fulfill it. Section 31 of Manitoba Act intended to give Metis children head start over expected influx of settlers from the east and to reconcile Metis’ aboriginal interests in Manitoba territory with assertion of Crown sovereignty. Section 31 was solemn constitutional obligation and engaged honour of Crown. Section 32, benefit made generally available to all settlers, did not engage honour of Crown. Government acted with persistent inattention and failed to act diligently to achieve purposes of s. 31 grant, inconsistent with behaviour demanded by honour of Crown.

Manitoba Metis Federation Inc. v. Canada (Attorney General) (Mar. 8, 2013, S.C.C., McLachlin C.J.C., LeBel, Deschamps, Fish, Abella, Rothstein, Cromwell, Moldaver and Karakatsanis JJ., File No. 33880) Decision at 190 A.C.W.S. (3d) 927 was reversed. 223 A.C.W.S. (3d) 941.

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