This week’s Supreme Court decision on the sale of the Mill River resort drew muted reactions from both sides in the court case. There is a feeling of resignation that this is just the first step in a protracted legal battle that neither side really wants.
The court ruled against the Mi’kmaq Confederacy of P.E.I. which sought a judicial review of the January 2017 sale by the provincial government of 324 acres of Crown land to businessman Don McDougall. Arguments were heard earlier this year and P.E.I. Supreme Court Justice Gordon Campbell handed down his decision Monday. While neither party appears to relish the prospect of more litigation, it seems this is exactly the path that lies ahead.
The province kept any gloating to a minimum, saying it welcomes the court decision dismissing the application. The province also accepted a light slap on the wrist from Justice Campbell, saying it appreciates the court’s guidance regarding the legal requirements and responsibilities pertaining to Crown land transactions.
At issue was the obligation by the province to hold meaningful, good faith consultations with Mi’kmaq on the sale of Crown lands in West Prince. The court took a generous view of government’s efforts. Justice Campbell said he examined the province’s consultations as a whole, and was satisfied they met or exceeded that duty.
Premier Wade MacLauchlan, who is also minister responsible for Aboriginal Affairs, held out an olive branch on behalf of the province, promising to work together in “a spirit of partnership and reconciliation . . .” It is small consolation for the confederacy.
The province is fortunate to have won round one. Justice Campbell noted the government could have been more proactive reaching out to Mi’kmaq who were left in the dark as talks to sell the property were completed. Mi’kmaq felt, and rightfully so, that they were blindsided and betrayed. It’s not the manner in which good faith consultations are held.
The province acted in haste, blinded by an urgency to sell the property and allow for the start of major renovations and upgrades to the former Rodd resort. Meanwhile, Mr. McDougall, with generous support from the province, is rapidly completing those improvements. The resort, campground and golf course are vital components for Island tourism and are major economic generators for West Prince.
The confederacy’s reaction was also low-key. It’s reviewing the decision and consulting with legal counsel as it considers the next steps. Many landmark decisions supporting First Nations in Canada were unsuccessful at the trial level but later succeeded on appeal. And, as Chief Brian Francis notes, “We are aware that this may very well be the first step in a lengthy legal process.”
The case is likely precedent-setting for P.E.I. and the confederacy is unlikely to back off now, despite its otherwise warm and close relationship with the province. Chief Matilda Ramjattan is adamant the confederacy intends to stand up for the Mi'kmaq of the province.
This court ruling is merely step one. It’s almost certain we’re heading for round two in appeals court.