I want to tell you about a particularly disturbing development going on right now in Innu, Maliseet, and Mi’gmaq territory, but first I think we need to cover some important ground.
What is the duty to consult?
In Canada, the duty to consult (a constitutional obligation) is triggered when the Crown (the federal or provincial government) contemplates actions or decisions that may affect Aboriginal rights.
You won’t find the duty to consult clearly explained in the Constitution. It has been read into section 35 by a number of court cases. Linked to consultation is the duty to accommodate, but knowing exactly what consultation and accommodation mean in any given situation is tricky. It really depends on the level of potential adverse impact, and on the strength of an Aboriginal right. Of course, these factors are judged not by Indigenous peoples themselves, but rather by the Crown, or the Court (if the matter ends up being litigated).
The duty to consult is rooted in something called “the honour of the Crown”, which requires the Crown to deal “honourably” with Indigenous peoples in order to prevent unjustified infringements of Aboriginal rights. Again, it is not Indigenous peoples who determine whether or not the Crown is behaving honourably. Since the honour of the Crown is a sort of self-imposed limit, it is not really an Aboriginal right.
Making things even trickier, the duty to consult is often delegated to lower administrative bodies/jurisdictions, such as regulators and industry representatives. The honour of the Crown itself can’t be delegated, just the procedural aspects of consultation and accommodation. It’s still up to the Crown to behave honourably, even if they aren’t really involved in the consultation process.
While there are some guidelines developed through case law, we don’t really know how consultation is supposed to go for absolutely sure, unless and until something goes wrong and the issue goes before the court…which is always a strange and after-the-fact way to figure things out. However, in general the duty to consult is about making sure that there is some process to learn about how a proposed development is going to impact Aboriginal rights, and Indigenous peoples need to be a part of that process/discussion/consultation/accommodation.
Misusing the duty to consult
So what happens when this constitutional obligation toward Indigenous peoples is wielded as a way for resource companies to bend the rules that apply to them?
That is exactly what the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB) is using the duty to consult to accomplish. In 2008, the C-NLOPB issued an offshore exploration license to Corridor Resources Inc. related to the Old Harry prospect. This license would allow exploratory offshore drilling in the Gulf of Ste. Lawrence, the purpose of which is to ascertain the full extent of hydrocarbon deposits that could be exploited at a later date. The license is set to expire on January 14, 2017.
The Old Harry Prospect is within Innu, Maliseet, and Mi’gmaq territory. In the eight years that Corridor has had their exploration license, no consultation with any of these First Nations has taken place. The Innu, Maliseet, and Mi’gmaq assert strong Aboriginal and Title rights claim to the area that would be impacted by the Old Harry prospect, and the project would have significant adverse impacts on those rights. Both of these factors suggest that deep consultation is required in this situation. Nonetheless, C-NLOPB and Corridor have plead that they did not have time to engage in proper consultations, despite the fact that these First Nations made themselves available.
Normally in such a situation, the license issued to Corridor would simply expire, and a new license would be offered for bidding. First Nations in the area have been waiting for this expiry in order to advocate for a 12-year moratorium on further issuances of exploratory licenses in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. They want an independent body that would work with their Nations and the provinces to properly study the potential impact of developments in the region, as well as to engage in the deep consultations required.
What is happening instead, is that C-NLOPB, in contravention of the Accord Act and the Provincial Act, which allow no further extensions, decided to extend Corridor’s license for an additional four years. The reason? They need more time to fulfill the duty to consult!
Corridor had EIGHT YEARS to consult with First Nations, and failed to do so. Invoking the duty to consult in order to illegally extend an exploratory license, is a gross misuse of a constitutional obligation that is meant to protect unjustified infringements of Aboriginal rights. The duty to consult is not a right that companies can invoke as a hail mary for not having engaged in the duty to consult in the first place!
What’s at stake?
Exploratory drilling in this area has the potential to be extremely disruptive to First Nations fisheries, and any subsequent oil or gas development brings the inherent risk of more disruption, as well as potentially catastrophic environmental effects in the event of an accident/spill. Also impacted are Aboriginal and Title rights, as well the relationship between First Nations and the Crown. The honour of the Crown is at stake here, and since it cannot be delegated, it is imperative that the Crown step in to address C-NLOPB’s misuse of the duty to consult.
The duty to consult is already considered by many Indigenous peoples to be inadequate, and too open to interpretation and abuse. Allowing regulators and industry to wield the duty to consult as a way to circumvent legal restrictions on their activities, is not a precedent that the federal or provincial governments should be comfortable with, and First Nations are certainly not going to let it happen without a fight.