The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was officially launched in 2008 as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA). Intended to be a process that would guide Canadians through the difficult discovery of the facts behind the residential school system, the TRC was also meant to lay the foundation for lasting reconciliation across Canada.
Mi’kmaq Grand Chief Gabriel Sylliboy is believed to be the first to use the 1752 Peace and Friendship Treaty to fight for Canada’s recognition of treaty rights. In his court case, R. v. Sylliboy (1928), he argued that the 1752 treaty protected his rights to hunt and fish, but he lost the case and was subsequently convicted. In 1985, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in R. v. Simon — another case concerning Mi’kmaq hunting rights — it found that the 1752 treaty did in fact give Mi’kmaq people the right to hunt on traditional territories. This judgment vindicated both Sylliboy and James Simon of the 1985 case. In 2017, almost 90 years after his conviction, Sylliboy received a posthumous pardon and apology from the Government of Nova Scotia.
The Delgamuukw case (1997) (also known as Delgamuukw v. British Columbia) concerned the definition, the content and the extent of Aboriginal title (i.e., ownership of traditional lands). The Supreme Court of Canada observed that Aboriginal title constituted an ancestral right protected by Section 35(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982. Influenced by the Calder case (1973), the ruling in the Delgamuukw case had an impact on other court cases about Aboriginal rights and title, including in the Tsilhqot’in case (2014).2
In the R. v. Van der Peet case (1996), the Supreme Court of Canada defined and restricted what constitutes Indigenous rights, as previously defined by the R. v. Sparrow case (1990). Criticized for narrowing the scope of Indigenous rights, the Van der Peet test — a set of criteria established by the court to prove Indigenous rights — stipulates that the Indigenous custom, practice or tradition in question must be integral to the distinctive culture of the Aboriginal group claiming the right and originate from before contact with the Europeans.
The Calder case (1973) — named for politician and Nisga’a chief Frank Calder, who brought the case before the courts — reviewed the existence of Aboriginal title (i.e., ownership) claimed over lands historically occupied by the Nisga’a peoples of northwestern British Columbia. While the case was lost, the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling nevertheless recognized for the first time that Aboriginal title has a place in Canadian law. The Calder case (also known as Calder et al. v. Attorney General of British Columbia) is considered the foundation for the Nisga’a Treaty in 2000 — the first modern land claim in British Columbia that gave the Nisga’a people self-government.
The 1969 White Paper (formally known as the “Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy, 1969”) was a Canadian government policy paper that attempted to abolish previous legal documents pertaining to Indigenous peoples in Canada, including the Indian Act and treaties, and assimilate all “Indian” peoples under the Canadian state.
An Act to Encourage the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes in the Province was passed by the fifth Parliament of the Province of Canada (formally Upper Canada and Lower Canada) in 1857. The Gradual Civilization Act, as it came to be known, was part of a state effort to use government policy to assimilate Indigenous peoples to the economic and social customs of European settler society.
The Lavell case (AG v. Lavell) was a challenge to Canadian law as it related to Indigenous women’s rights under section 12(1)(b) of the Indian Act. As the case moved through the court system, it merged with R v. Bédard and mounted a significant challenge against the patriarchal (male-dominated) and sexist nature of constitutional law in Canada.
Underlying the move toward the establishment of an independent or quasi-independent Indigenous justice system is a recognition that there are certain values and customs historically attached to Indigenous communities. In addition, the concept of an independent justice system is viewed as being consonant with the notion of the inherent right of Indigenous self-government.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruling in the R. v. Sioui case on 24 May 1990 transformed understandings of treaty interpretations in Canada. Four Huron-Wendat brothers were charged and convicted of illegally camping, starting fires and cutting down trees in Jacques-Cartier Park in Québec. The Supreme Court found that the brothers were justified in arguing that a document signed by General James Murray and the Huron-Wendat chief in 1760 protected their right to use the land for ceremonial purposes and overturned the convictions.
The Gladue case (also known as R. v. Gladue) is a landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision, handed down on 23 April 1999, which advises that lower courts should consider an Indigenous offender’s background and make sentencing decisions accordingly, based on section 718.2 (e) of the Criminal Code.
The Pamajewon case (1996) (also known as R. v. Pamajewon) was the first case in which First Nations in Canada argued an inherent right to self-government before the Supreme Court. Spearheaded by two Anishinaabe First Nations, Eagle Lake and Shawanaga, the claimants argued that the Indigenous right to self-government included a right to control gambling practices on reserves. The Supreme Court ruled that these First Nations did not have rights to high-stakes gaming under self-government.