Rethinking s. 35 Aboriginal Rights from an Indigenous Perspective

As it relates to economics and self-government in light of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Rethinking s. 35 Aboriginal Rights from an Indigenous Perspective

Some Indigenous communities in BC under the name “Vancouver 2030,” have proceeded with an Indigenous-led bid for the 2030 Winter Olympics to be held on unceded lands. This invitation to the world has been issued with the same Indigenous notions that existed some 150 years ago, that is to share equally in everything.

Unceded lands in BC are contingent liabilities on BC’s books. Moreover, the Indian Act (“Act”) makes provision for Special Reserves (e.g., Royal Proclamation of 1763, Lands Reserved for the Indians). Within the Act are taxation rights; therefore, Special Reserves contain taxation jurisdiction for First Nations until the Crown has obtained qualified title by way of, cede, release, and/or qualified surrender.

Economic rights included in the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples (“Declaration”) provides for Indigenous peoples to practice traditional and economic activities, which goes much further than the subsistence goal posts set out in Aboriginal rights jurisprudence in Canada. Moreover, the right to redress on subsistence and development in a just and fair manner is a substantial economic right to Indigenous peoples, for example compensation for, decline or loss of Pacific salmon, denial of mineral and/or timber rights, land dispositions made without consent, etc.

In Reference to the Court of Appeal of Quebec in relation to the Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families the Quebec Court of Appeal, in February 2022, confirmed that “the inherent right of self-government of First Nations, Inuit and Métis is recognized and affirmed by section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.” Incidental to self-government is the right to raise funds — Article 3 of the Declaration, articulates the right of Indigenous peoples to freely pursue their economic development and Article 4 is about Indigenous peoples having the right to self-government, “as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions” (e.g., taxation, property assessments, etc.).

When it comes to determining the economic aspect of Aboriginal rights, Justice Selbie seems to have hit the nail on the head in the context of Indigenous peoples’ legal perspectives. In 1991, Justice Selbie (the “summary appeal judge in R. v Vanderpeet, 1991 CanLII 1936 (BCSC), 59 BCLR (2d) 392 — [1991] 3 CNLR 161) determined:

… when the first Indian caught the first salmon he had the ‘right’ to do anything he wanted with it — eat it, trade it for deer meat, throw it back or keep it against a hungrier time. As time went on and for an infinite variety of reasons that ‘right’ to catch the fish and do anything he wanted with it became hedged in by rules arising from religion, custom, necessity and social change. … One of the social changes that occurred was the coming of the white-man, a circumstance, as any other, to which he must adjust. With the white-man came new customs, new ways and new incentives to colour and change his old life, including his trading and bartering ways. The old customs, rightly or wrongly, for good or for bad, changed and he must change with them — and he did. A money economy eventually developed and he adjusted to that also — he traded his fish for money. This was a long way from his ancient sharing, bartering and trading practices but it was the logical progression of such. It has been held that the Aboriginal right to hunt is not frozen in time so that only the bow and arrow can be used in exercising it — the right evolves with the times…

In 2030, it will be 150 years since the treaty handshake medals with the buried hatchet were issued by the Crown. António Guterres, United Nations Secretary General said, “The time is now to close the inequality gaps… .”

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