Why is the Guerin Decision Important?
The Guerin decision is important because it established the principle that in certain situations the Crown must act in the best interests of Indigenous people and if it fails to do so it can be sued in court.
Musqueam Indian Band sued Canada after it discovered the terms of a lease the federal government had negotiated with a golf club for part of its Vancouver-area reserve were less favourable than it had been led to believe.
The main issue in Guerin was whether Indigenous people could take the federal government to court for failing to act in their best interest.
The Court concluded that when the Crown takes responsibility for deciding what is in the best interest of Indigenous people, it has a legal obligation to act in their best interests—this is referred to as a fiduciary duty. If the Crown fails in this duty, it can be sued in court.
Guerin is one of the most important Aboriginal law cases decided by the Supreme Court because for the first time the federal government was held legally responsible for not acting in the best interests of Indigenous people.
While courts have long described the Crown’s trust-like relationship and fiduciary obligations to Indigenous people as a form of benevolent paternalism, in actuality it has always been about controlling Indigenous people in furtherance of Canada’s colonization project. In recent years, the federal government has taken steps to relieve itself of fiduciary obligations and associated legal liabilities e.g. through the First Nation Land Management Act.
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Bruce McIvor, lawyer and historian, is partner at First Peoples Law LLP. He is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of British Columbia’s Allard School of Law where he teaches the constitutional law of Aboriginal and Treaty rights. A member of the bar in British Columbia and Ontario, Bruce is recognized nationally and internationally as a leading practitioner of Aboriginal law in Canada. Bruce's ancestors took Métis scrip at Red River in Manitoba. He holds a law degree, a Ph.D. in Aboriginal and environmental history, is a Fulbright Scholar and author of Standoff: Why Reconciliation Fails Indigenous People and How to Fix It. He is a member of the Manitoba Métis Federation.
First Peoples Law is a law firm dedicated to defending and advancing the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. We work closely with First Nations to defend their Aboriginal title, rights and Treaty rights, uphold their Indigenous laws and governance and ensure economic prosperity for their members.