May 15, 2017

Case Brief: Manitoba Mètis Federation Inc. v. Canada (AG), 2013 SCC 14

Manitoba Metis Federation Inc. v. Canada (Attorney General), 2013 SCC 14, [2013] 1 SCR 623

Facts: The Canadian government agreed in 1870 to grant Mètis children shares of 1.4 million acres of land and to recognize existing Mètis landholdings. These promises were set out in ss. 31 and 32 of the Manitoba Act, 1870, a constitutional document. Errors and delay interfered with the division and granting of the land among the eligible recipients.

Issue: Whether Canada failed to comply with the Honour of the Crown in the implementation of ss. 31 and 32 of the Manitoba Act, 1870.

Holding: Appeal allowed in part. The Federal Crown failed to implement the land grant provision set out in s. 31 of the Manitoba Act, 1870 in accordance with the Honour of the Crown (HOC).

Majority Opinion Reasoning: McLachlin CJ and Karakatsanis J (for Lebel, Fish, Abella, and Cromwell)(Deschamps J. took no part): Section 31 was a constitutional obligation to the Mètis, an Aboriginal people. The broader purpose of the obligation was to reconcile Mètis Aboriginal interests with the assertion of Crown sovereignty. Although not a fiduciary duty, it was a solemn constitutional obligation to the Mètis that engaged HOC, and required the Crown to act diligently in fulfilling that promise, which it failed to do.


Honour of the Crown: The ultimate purpose is the reconciliation of pre-existing Aboriginal societies with the assertion of Crown sovereignty. HOC was engaged by an explicit obligation to an Aboriginal group that is enshrined in the Constitution, but it will not be engaged where there is simply a strong interest. The duties imposed concern how the obligation must be fulfilled which varies with the circumstances. The question is simply this: Viewing the Crown’s conduct as a whole in the context of the case, did the Crown act with diligence to pursue the fulfillment of the purposes of the obligation?

Limitations: A claim for declaratory relief sought to assist in extra-judicial negotiations with the Crown in pursuit of reconciliation, a constitutional goal in s. 35. The claim is not barred by limitations because no personal relief sought and no claim for damage or for land. Limitations cannot prevent courts, as guardians of the Constitution, from issuing declarations on the constitutionality of the Crown’s conduct. As long as an issue remains outstanding the goal of reconciliation and constitutional harmony remain unachieved. Also, policy rationales underlying limitations acts do not apply in Aboriginal context such as this where reconciliation weighs heavily in the balance, and sometimes a declaration is the only way to give effect to HOC.

Laches: The claim is also not barred by laches because the court is loath to apply an equitable doctrine to defeat the Mètis claim given its role as guardian of the Constitution especially when a constitutional provision not been fulfilled as required by HOC.


Honour of the Crown: When the issue is implementation of a constitutional obligation to an Aboriginal people, HOC requires that Crown (i) take a broad, purposive approach to the interpretation of the promise, which is borne out of jurisprudence regarding s. 35(1), and (ii) act diligently to fulfill it because the law assumes the Crown always intends to fulfill its solemn promises, such as those found in treaties, but also constitutional obligations such as in this case. A persistent pattern of errors and indifference that substantially frustrates the purposes of a solemn promise may amount to a betrayal of the Crown's duty to act honourably in fulfilling its promise.

Dissenting Opinion(s) Reasoning: Rothstein J (Moldaver J)(paras 156-303): Majority reasoning results in new common law constitutional obligation derived from HOC. This results in an unpredictable expansion of the scope of duties and a significant expansion of Crown liability where promise made to an Aboriginal group. The claim should be barred by limitations and laches which are universally applicable. The court never recognized a general exception from limitations for constitutionally derived claims.