The Constitutional basis of aboriginal rights
Series/Report no.Lex Electronica; Vol.15, no 1
Aboriginal rights are rights held by aboriginal peoples, not by virtue of Crown grant, legislation or treaty, but “by reason of the fact that aboriginal peoples were once independent, self-governing entities in possession of most of the lands now making up Canada.” It is, of course, the presence of aboriginal peoples in North America before the arrival of the Europeans that distinguishes them from other minority groups in Canada, and explains why their rights have special legal status. However, the extent to which those rights had survived European settlement was in considerable doubt until as late as 1973, which was when the Supreme Court of Canada decided the Calder case.2 In that case, six of the seven judges held that the Nishga people of British Columbia possessed aboriginal rights to their lands that had survived European settlement. The actual outcome of the case was inconclusive, because the six judges split evenly on the question whether the rights had been validly extinguished or not. However, the recognition of the rights was significant, and caught the attention of the Government of Canada, which began to negotiate treaties (now called land claims agreements) with First Nations in those parts of the country that were without treaties. That resumed a policy that had been abandoned in the 1920s, when the last numbered treaty was entered into.