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WET 219 - Applied Water Law - Indigenous Rights

R. v. Sioui 1990 Supreme Court of Canada

On May 24th, 1990 the Supreme Court of Canada transformed the manner in which treaties with Indigenous people needed to be interpreted 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 significance of the decision is found in the fact that the case changed the way that Indigenous treaties are interpreted in Canadian courts of law. In these cases of treaty rights, the courts found that treaties are to be interpreted according to the “spirit and intent” of the treaties from the Indigenous perspective. 

The Court determined that “treaties and statutes relating to Indians should be liberally construed and uncertainties resolved in favour of the Indians.” In that case, the court introduced a principle adopted from a ruling in the United States in 1899 that treaties “must therefore be construed, not according to the technical meaning of its words to learned lawyers, but in the sense in which they would naturally be understood by the Indians.”

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