Halalt First Nation v Canada

The Specific Claims Tribunal released a decision on December 12, 2014 in <a href="http://sct-trp.ca/apption/cms/UploadedDocuments/20137001/106-SCT-7001-13-Doc45%28typed%29.pdf" title="Halalt v. HMTQ"><i>Halalt First Nation v. Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada</i></a>, allowing a proposed amendment to the Halalt First Nation’s specific claim regarding the expropriation of portions of its reserve lands for railway purposes in 1885 and 1912.

Halalt sought to amend its Declaration of Claim in order to add an allegation that the Crown had breached an obligation to obtain and return reserve status to a portion of Halalt’s expropriated land once this land had been abandoned by the railway in 1987. The Crown opposed this amendment on the basis that it contained facts and allegations that were not contained in Halalt’s original specific claim, which was submitted to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs for negotiation. The Crown argued that it was outside the Tribunal’s jurisdiction to consider allegations that had not been previously presented to the Minister, and that allowing the amendment would undermine the Specific Claims Policy and deprive the Minister of the right to consider all claims in the first instance.

The Crown further proposed that Halalt’s claim ought to be adjourned so that Halalt could submit a new claim to the Minister based on the issue of the abandonment of the railway lands. The Crown argued that only once the Minister had decided whether or not to accept the additional allegations for negotiation, and following three years of any negotiations that might have followed acceptance of the further allegations, should Halalt’s entire claim be heard by the Tribunal. Halalt, on the other hand, argued that its proposed amendment merely particularized their claim that had already been considered and rejected by the Minister.

The Specific Claims Policy explicitly states that once a claim has been filed with the Minister for negotiation, no new allegations, grounds or evidence can be added to the existing claim; instead, new allegations, grounds or evidence will be considered a new claim and will be assessed as a new claim submission under the Policy. The Tribunal found that the consequence of this aspect of the Policy was that anything provided by a claimant to supplement a previously filed claim would put the claimant “back in the queue at the door of the [Specific Claims Branch]” and could result in up to a three year wait before the “new claim” became eligible for filing with the Tribunal. However, the Tribunal held that this internal policy of the Specific Claims Branch could not limit its jurisdiction or the exercise of its statutory powers, and could not prevent it from considering grounds, allegations and evidence beyond what was set out in Halalt’s original claim. The Tribunal held that it has “sole authority over its process” and “may determine the permitted content of documents initiating and responding to claims and the introduction of evidence”.

The Tribunal also expressed concern over the delay and costs associated with the Crown’s proposal, finding these to be contrary to the objects of the Specific Claims Tribunal Act (“SCTA”). The Tribunal noted that if it were to accept the Crown’s argument on jurisdiction, Halalt would be faced with the unenviable choice of either going through the extra delay and cost of having its entire claim considered by submitting a new claim or proceeding with its claim as currently framed and risking the possibility that it would be barred from pursuing the further allegations through a separate claim. The Tribunal also noted that the Crown could still negotiate Halalt’s amended claim while it remained before the Tribunal, and that Halalt had showed an ongoing willingness to negotiate at a previous case management conference.

In finding in favour of Halalt, the Tribunal further noted that its enabling statute, the SCTA, was a remedial statute aimed not only at addressing the historic grievances of First Nations against the Crown, but also at reducing the chronic delays and backlogs in the specific claims resolution process and ensuring claims are adjudicated “in a just and timely manner”. The Tribunal also noted the need to give the SCTA a broad and liberal interpretation, keeping in mind and giving effect to its purpose. In the Tribunal’s view, it would be neither timely nor just to force Halalt to go back to the start of a process it had already engaged in for over a decade with respect to the same parcel of land. The Tribunal also held that the Crown’s proposal would be contrary to the principle of finality, in terms of the SCTA process representing the full and final adjudication of First Nations’ historic grievances, and would be contrary to the advancement of reconciliation.