Supreme Court to hear NL appeal in Innu-Rio Tinto lawsuit
The Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) will hear an appeal of a Quebec court’s decision to deny a Newfoundland and Labrador application to strike certain allegations from a lawsuit by two Quebec Innu groups against Rio Tinto/Iron Ore Company of Canada (IOC).
In 2013, the Innu First Nations of Uashat mak Mani-utenam and Matimekush-Lac John, launched the $900 million suit claiming the company’s mines in Schefferville, Quebec and Labrador City, its railway and deep-water port have caused environmental damage, displaced community members and prevented Innu from practising their traditional way of life.
When Quebec’s highest court ruled the First Nations had the right to sue Rio Tinto (IOC), Newfoundland and Labrador intervened applying to the Superior Court of Quebec to remove the portions of the case that pertained to the company’s operations outside Quebec.
“When you look at the pleadings, there’s multiple possible implications,” said Andrew Parsons, Newfoundland and Labrador attorney general. “One of the ones obviously that we were very concerned with as a province was one of the possible repercussions would be these groups getting title over certain lands in Newfoundland and Labrador, specifically Labrador, and obviously that would be an issue to us.”
Specifically, the pleadings assert title over ancestral territory that overlaps the Quebec-Labrador border. Parsons argues Quebec doesn’t have jurisdiction.
“Labrador doesn’t answer to the courts in Quebec,” he said.
The initial application by the attorney general was turned down in 2016 so Newfoundland and Labrador appealed to the Quebec Court of Appeals.
“The trial judge held that, in light of the particular nature of Aboriginal rights, the proceeding cannot be characterized as a real action,” the appeals court panel wrote in its 2017. “The action is, moreover, against private companies and not against the Crown.”
It continued: “As for the immunity of the provincial Crown, invoked by the appellant, the judge held that it was inapplicable since the Innu seek recognition of existing rights which predate even the founding of the State and its borders.”
The Court of Appeals agreed and upheld the decision.
Parsons still sees a serious risk, however.
“It’s a substantive matter when groups, especially when we have Indigenous groups going through a court process, make, basically, a land claim,” he said.
So, Newfoundland and Labrador appealed to the SCC.
“We’re pleased,” Parsons said. “The Supreme Court receives a large number of applications for leave and the vast majority are turned down, so the fact that this one was accepted was obviously good news.”
In a press release, the Quebec Innu groups maintained its claims do not stop at provincial borders and expressed disappointment in the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the appeal.
“This constitutes yet another delay for our people who have been waiting for Rio Tinto (IOC), ever since it began operations here in 1950, to finally show us a measure of respect,” said Matimekush-Lac John Chief Tshani Ambroise. “The fact remains that Rio Tinto (IOC) continues to operate on our territory without our consent and that situation can no longer stand.”
A date for the Supreme Court hearing has not been set and Parsons did not know how long the process would take.