Why is the Sioui Decision Important?

By Bruce McIvor

Why is the Sioui decision important?


The Supreme Court’s 1990 Sioui decision is important because it was part of the development of modern treaty interpretation principles.


In the spring of 1982 four members of the Huron-Wendat Nation from the Wendake community near Quebec City were charged under a provincial law for cutting down trees, making fires and camping in Jacques-Cartier provincial park. In their defence, they argued they were exercising treaty rights. 


The Court considered whether a one-paragraph document signed by General James Murray on September 5, 1760 confirming the Huron-Wendat’s right to “the free exercise of their religion, their customs, and liberty of trading with the English” was a treaty. 


The Court confirmed that instead of a rigid, legalistic interpretation, the document had to be understood based on a consideration of the historical context and the common understanding of the British and the Huron-Wendat in 1760. Rather than apply the rules of international law, the Court took a broad and generous approach and resolved uncertainties in favour of the Huron-Wendat. 


The Court decided it was reasonable for the Huron-Wendat to have assumed General Murray had the authority on behalf of the British to enter into a treaty since he had a history of representing the Crown in important matters. The central question was whether there was evidence Murray and the Huron-Wendat intended to create mutually binding obligations. A certain degree of solemnity shortly after the agreement was made was further evidence it was intended to be a treaty. 


Based on all the circumstances and the historical context, the Court decided the document was a treaty and that the Huron-Wendat were not guilty because they were exercising treaty rights. 



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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.

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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. 

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