The Trudeau government was clearly taken by surprise at the Federal Court’s nullifying of their approval of the 1,150-km Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Otherwise they would not have signed a deal with Kinder Morgan that explicitly stated any adverse court decisions would not be deemed to constitute a “material adverse effect” that could change the deal’s terms.
No wonder Kinder Morgan shareholders voted virtually unanimously to wash their hands of the project at the speed of summer lightning following the court’s announcement. Now the government is stuck with a project that won’t be going anywhere for some time, if ever.
Central to the objections raised by the court was the failure adequately to consult six First Nations. There are many opinions on what to do next. Some argue for taking the Federal Court decision to the Supreme Court for a ruling. But it was the Supreme Court that got us into this mess in the first place, by introducing the concept of the “honour of the Crown” regarding First Nations in 2004.
In Haida Nation vs. British Columbia (Minister of Forests), the SCC ruled that the B.C. Minister of Forestry could not approve the transfer of a 40-year old Tree Farm License (which prior to this ruling had been done many times) without first consulting with the “Council of the Haida Nation” and, “if appropriate,” accommodating their concerns. “Accommodate” and “if appropriate” are imprecise words which the SCC did not clarify.
Further muddying the waters, the SCC said in their ruling that in consulting and accommodating Indian concerns, honourable Crown conduct “must be understood generously.” What does “generously” mean precisely? (Nobody knows. But Indian bands have tended to use it as a cudgel of economic coercion since then.) The SCC explains the Crown’s generosity is required “if we are to achieve the reconciliation of the pre-existence of aboriginal societies with the sovereignty of the Crown.” Whose meaning is also wide open to interpretation.
In his newly published book, There is no Difference: An Argument for the Abolition of the Indian Reserve System, lawyer Peter Best devotes a chapter to unpacking the consequences of Haida Nation. It makes for fascinating reading.