Case Brief: Williams Lake Indian Band v. Canada (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development), 2018 SCC 4

Case Brief of Williams Lake Indian Band v. Canada (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development), 2018 SCC 4

At issue before the Supreme Court of Canada (“SCC”) in Williams Lake was the validity of a claim to compensation under the Specific Claims Tribunal Act, S.C. 2008, c. 22 (the “Act”) for losses arising from the failure of the Crown to prevent the Village Lands[1] of the Williams Lake Indian Band (the “Band”) from being taken up by settlers.[2]


In the 1858, settlers were rapidly taking up unsurveyed lands within the newly established Colony of British Columbia. To avoid war with First Nations, Governor Douglas instructed his magistrates to stake out and reserve for the benefit of the Indians their occupied village sites and surrounding lands. He also set up, in 1860, a system of land pre-emptions for white settlers so long as those pre-empted land were not over Indian Reserves or settlements.

That didn’t happen for the Band’s Village Lands. The magistrate responsible did not mark out those lands as an Indian settlement, and they were pre-empted and fee title was issued to a settler, displacing the Band.  After British Columbia entered Confederation in 1871, federal officials responsible for the creation of Indian reserves in BC acknowledged there was a mistake but allocated a reserve to the Band elsewhere.

The majority of the SCC held there were two separate breaches of fiduciary duty—one by the Imperial Crown pre-Confederation, the other by the federal Crown post-Confederation—and that both Crown’s can be treated as a continuous entity such that Canada can be held responsible for the Imperial Crown’s breach. This issue will now return to the Tribunal for determination of compensation.

Why this case matters

This is the first time that Canada has been held liable for a pre-Confederation breach of fiduciary duty by the Crown.  Many First Nations can now proceed to the tribunal with confidence that their own pre-Confederation grievances will be heard and decided.

The case is also the first time a decision of the Specific Claims Tribunal has been upheld by the SCC.  This provides a much needed surge of credibility and authority to the Tribunal and the important work that it does to reconcile historic grievances between First Nations and the Crown.

Finally, the majority’s assessment of the transition of responsibility for the Imperial Crown’s breach of fiduciary duty to Canada drew the most ire from the dissenting justices. First Nations might expect Canada to use those dissenting opinions in future cases to try to avoid liability for pre-Confederation breaches of fiduciary duty by the Crown.


Christopher Devlin and Peter Nyhuus

[1] The site of a village at the foot of Williams Lake (including parts of what is now the City of Williams Lake).

[2] Para 1.

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