Supreme Court of Canada –  1 S.C.R. 3
In this decision, the Supreme Court recognizes that Aboriginal peoples’ tribunals must be respected, since they are part of an empowerment process. However, rules about the independence of the Courts must apply.
Could CP and Unitel bypass the internal appeal process by bringing before the Federal Court a motion for a judicial review of the tax assessments they had received?
Yes – the band’s tribunal did not have jurisdiction in that case (5 judges against 4).
Between: Matsqui Indian Band and Matsqui Indian Band Council And: Canadian Pacific Limited and Unitel Communications Inc.
– AND –Between: Siska Indian Band and Siska Indian Band Council, Kanaka Bar Indian Band and Kanaka Bar Indian Band Council, Nicomen Indian Band and Nicomen Indian Band Council, Shuswap Indian Band and Shuswap Indian Band Council, Skuppah Indian Band and Skuppah Indian Band Council and Spuzzum Indian Band and Spuzzum Indian Band Council
And: Canadian Pacific Limited
Intervener: Indian Taxation Advisory Board
In 1985, after thorough consultations and negotiations between the federal government, provincial governments and Aboriginal representatives, the Indian Act was amended to allow bands to adopt their own by-laws in order to establish a tax regime for real property situated on their reserves. The modification came into effect in 1988.
In 1992, the Matsqui Indian Band and Council and other bands situated in British Columbia, namely, the Siska, Kanaka, Nicomen, Shuswap, Skuppah and Spuzzum, all implemented this new regime. The by-law adopted by the Matsqui Band created a revision office, which could hear protests regarding tax assessments. The other bands implemented similar structures. Members of these tribunals were or were not remunerated, could be replaced and could be members of the band concerned (Mullan, 2003).
Pursuant to their adopted by-laws, the Bands forwarded notices of tax assessments to Canadian Pacific (CP) and Unitel Communications Inc. (Unitel) with regard to the tracts of land passing through the reserves on which CP had put train tracks and Unitel had installed optic cables. CP and Unitel directly asked the Federal Court for a judicial review of the tax assessments instead of resorting to the internal appeal process.
CP: Since the property rights to the rail line are owned under letters issued in 1891, they were not part of the reserve. The tracts were not owned by the Crown; hence they could not be taxed under section 83 (1) of the Indian Act. Also, the appeal tribunal is only competent on matters relating to valuation, which does not include settling issues regarding the classification of lands.
The Bands: They brought a motion to strike the respondents’ application for judicial review since the Federal Court was not competent because CP and Unitel did not ask the Court of Revision (or any other similar tribunal) first. It was only if the internal appeal process failed that they had a right to appeal to the Federal Court. Also, the correct procedure was an appeal to the Federal Court, not a judicial review.
Federal Court, Trial Division (1993): The Bands’ arguments (CP and Unitel could appeal the decision of the Court of Revision) are accepted and the respondents’ application for judicial review is rejected.
Federal Court of Appeal (1993): The appeal of the lower Court’s decision is allowed. The questions analyzed by the judge pertained to the motions judge’s exercise of discretionary power to allow the judicial review instead of the appeal. The parties did not consider the issue of whether the land was “in the reserve” or not.
Lamer, La Forest, Cory, McLachlin, Major
Lamer (Cory): The internal appeal process created for the purpose of deciding the accuracy of tax assessments also had jurisdiction in determining whether a tract of land was part of a reserve or not. The internal tribunal is not limited to jurisdiction over the valuation of the lands themselves since the word “assessment” describes the whole process. The Federal Court is authorized to hear a judicial review of a decision made by evaluators concerning tax assessments of real property on reserve. The Federal Court also shared competence with the appeal tribunals in determining whether the tracts of land were part of the reserve or not.
The policy underlying the tax assessment scheme was part of the federal government’s policy of promoting and protecting Aboriginal self-government, and when CP and Unitel bypassed the appeal procedures, they contravened those objectives, which could be prejudicial to the Bands that passed tax assessment by-laws.
However, a reasonable person would come to the conclusion that the members of the appeal tribunals are not independent enough from the bands and their councils, since they do not have any financial security, they have no security of tenure and they are named by the chiefs and the councils and must decide between their bands’ interests and the interests of someone from outside. The motions judge erred in the exercise of his discriminatory power, and he should have heard the judicial review.
La Forest (McLachlin and Major): CP and Unitel should have been allowed to ask directly for a judicial review in Federal Court since both companies had challenged the Bands’ capacity to assess the tracts of lands concerned.
The decision had a greater impact on the field of administrative law than on Aboriginal law in Canada. For the first time, the requirements of judicial independence were extended to a quasi-judicial tribunal (Ellis, 2006: 328).
For more information on the assessment process and the role of the First Nations Tax Commission, see Osoyoos Indian Band v. Oliver (Town),  3 S.C.R. 746.
Osoyoos Indian Band v. Oliver (Town),  3 S.C.R. 746.
Ellis S. Ronald. 2006. The Justicizing of Quasi-Judicial Tribunals – Part I, in Canadian Journal of Administrative Law & Practice 19: 303-338.
Mullan David J. 2003. Administrative Law: Cases, Text, and Materials, 5th edition. Toronto: Edmond Montgomery.