Southwind v. Canada:
Equitable Compensation for Breaches of Fiduciary Duty
Justice Binnie’s famous remarks in Wewaykum Indian Band v. Canada about the Crown “wearing many hats” have since been repeatedly deployed to undermine Indigenous claims. The “many hats” trope is seen by some as retrenching the doctrine of fiduciary duty by suggesting that the Crown owes responsibilities not only towards Indigenous communities but also other parts of Canadian society. However, the recent Supreme Court decision in Southwind v. Canada repudiated this view and confirmed the supremacy of Canada’s fiduciary accountability to Indigenous peoples over its public interest obligations.
The construction of a hydroelectric dam in 1929 led to permanent flooding of the Lac Seul First Nation (LSFN) reserve, resulting in extensive damage to homes, wild rice fields, gardens, hay lands, and gravesites. Canada had been informed from the outset of the consequences but decided to advance the project without consent from the LSFN, compensation, or lawful authorization. The LSFN was never consulted about the flooding, and never consented to the flooding of the reserve. Fifteen years after the flooding, the LSFN only received a small amount of compensation from Canada for the flooding, including $1.00 per acre for the reserve lands.
In 1985, the LSFN filed suit for flooding damages. The trial judge found that Canada had breached its fiduciary duty to the LSFN in respect of its reserve land and that the appropriate remedy was equitable compensation. Contention arose with respect to the calculation of loss. The trial judge held that the project was a public work, and that Canada could have legally expropriated the flooded land. In so doing, he did not consider the value of the land for hydroelectric generation. Instead, the trial judge calculated the compensation on the basis of the land being expropriated for fair market value. The LSFN was awarded $30 million, which included the fair market value, certain non-calculable losses, plus compound interest going back to 1929. The Federal Court of Appeal upheld the valuation, and the LSFN appealed to the Supreme Court.
Supreme Court Decision
The Supreme Court concluded that the trial judge’s assessment of equitable compensation was flawed because it was based on an incorrect view of the requirements imposed by Canada’s fiduciary duty. The Court gave three reasons for why a breach of fiduciary duty in the present case warranted greater compensation than that based upon expropriation principles:
- Canada’s power to expropriate reserve land did not conflict with its fiduciary duty to guard the LSFN’s best interests.
- The fiduciary duty continued to apply even if the land was needed for a public work.
- The model of compensation must reflect the unique nature of the First Nation’s interest in reserve land, the impact of the loss on the First Nation, and the overarching goal of reconciliation.
The trial judge’s fundamental error lied in focusing on what Canada would likely have done (expropriated) instead of what it ought to have done (negotiated a surrender). To discharge its fiduciary duty, Canada should have consulted with the LSFN and attempted to negotiate a surrender before resorting to expropriation. Even in the event of expropriation, Canada had a responsibility to ensure the highest remedy possible for the LSFN, which would have been one reflecting the value of the land to the hydroelectricity generation project.
In addition to clarifying the calculation of equitable compensation for breaches of fiduciary duty, Southwind stands for the explicit rejection of the argument that Canada must simply balance existing Indigenous rights against other public interests. Where a First Nation’s protected interest in land is threatened, the Crown must act in such a way to minimally impair that interest and maximize compensation.
The Supreme Court made it clear that the Crown can only balance its duties to First Nations with other public interest considerations prior to reserve creation and outside of their traditional territory. Once reserves are created, the Crown must faithfully discharge its fiduciary duties to protect the First Nation’s quasi-proprietary interest in those lands:
The fiduciary duty imposes heavy obligations on Canada. The duty does not melt away when Canada has competing priorities. Canada was under an obligation to preserve and protect the LSFN’s interest in the Reserve.
This clarifies the scope of some unhelpful findings by the Court previously in Wewaykum that suggested the Crown could “wear many hats” and balance competing public interests when considering how to discharge its fiduciary duties.
The Court also made it clear that the statutory regime in place does not relieve the Crown of meeting its fiduciary obligations. This clarified unhelpful findings in Ermineskin Indian Band and Nation v. Canada. Instead, the Court confirmed that fiduciary duties still apply equally where Canada is considering takings of reserve lands for public purposes.
First, the presence of legal discretion to take or expropriate the land in s. 48 of the Indian Act did not define the obligations imposed by Canada’s fiduciary duty. Second, the fact that the land was required for a public work did not negate the obligations imposed by Canada’s fiduciary duty. And third, the principles of expropriation law are fundamentally different than those underlying Indigenous interest in land. Instead, the fiduciary obligations in this case must reflect the nature of the interest, the impact of the loss on the First Nation, the importance of the fiduciary relationship, and reconciliation, which is the overarching goal of the fiduciary duty itself, based in the honour of the Crown.
All of this is to say that the Crown does not, in fact, wear so many hats. Justice Binnie’s metaphor must be read on the particular facts of Wewaykum, which involved a less stringent standard of fiduciary duty because the First Nations in that case did not have a quasi-proprietary interest in the land at issue at the relevant time.
Overall, the Southwind decision strengthens fiduciary duty remedies available to First Nations. It corrects and clarifies previous decisions that had been understood to narrow those duties. It makes it clear that when these obligations conflict with majoritarian interests, the two cannot be treated on the same plane, and the Crown continues to owe special duties to First Nations. Finally, it directs a more robust approach to remedies based on what the Crown ought to have done as fiduciary, rather than what it was likely to have done.
Ermineskin Indian Band and Nation v. Canada, 2009 SCC 9.
Luk, Senwung. “Not So Many Hats: The Crown’s Fiduciary Obligations to Aboriginal Communities since Guerin.” Saskatchewan Law Review 76, no. 1 (2013): 1–50.
Southwind v. Canada, 2021 SCC 28.
Wewaykum Indian Band v. Canada, 2002 SCC 79.
 Wewaykum Indian Band v. Canada, 2002 SCC 79.
 For a detailed analysis, see: Senwung Luk, “Not So Many Hats: The Crown’s Fiduciary Obligations to Aboriginal Communities since Guerin,” Saskatchewan Law Review 76, no. 1 (2013): pp. 1-50.
 Ibid. at 2.
 Southwind v. Canada, 2021 SCC 28 [Southwind].
 Southwind, supra note 4 at para 12.
 Ermineskin Indian Band and Nation v. Canada, 2009 SCC 9.
 Southwind, supra note 4 at para 94.
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