Why is the St. Catherine’s Milling Decision Important?
The St. Catherine’s Milling (1888) decision is important because it was the first major Canadian court case to consider the relationship between Indigenous Peoples’ legal interests over their lands and the legal interests of the federal and provincial governments.
The case was the result of a dispute between the federal and Ontario governments over logging rights in north-western Ontario—Indigenous Peoples were not directly involved. The federal government argued the lands had been owned by the Anishinaabe and that their land rights had passed to the federal government through Treaty #3. Ontario insisted that it held title to the lands.
The case was ultimately heard by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in England, which was the highest court for Canadian legal disputes until 1949.
The Privy Council decided that while the federal government had the right to pass laws affecting ‘Indians’ and their lands, Ontario had acquired the beneficial interest in Indigenous Peoples’ lands (except for Indian reserves), not the federal government.
St. Catherine’s Milling imported the doctrine of discovery, which had been pronounced by the US Supreme Court in the 1820s, into Canadian law. The Canadian Supreme Court has continued to rely on the doctrine as fundamental to its interpretation of section 35(1) of the Constitution.
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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.