De facto and de jure Crown Sovereignty: Reconciliation and Legitimation at the Supreme Court of Canada

Ryan Beaton


This paper offers a short story of Crown sovereignty at the Supreme Court Canada in order to shed light on questions the Court has raised about the legitimacy of Crown sovereignty over territory claimed by First Nations. In skeletal form, the story is simple. The Crown — first Imperial British and later Canadian federal and provincial — asserted sovereignty over what is now Canadian territory, and Canadian courts (and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council) accepted those assertions without question. Yet the Supreme Court of Canada has lately qualified Crown sovereignty in striking ways, perhaps most notably in speaking of “de facto Crown sovereignty” in reasons released in 2004.
The purpose behind this qualification, in line with the Court’s Aboriginal rights and title cases since Calder v British Columbia (Attorney General), seems to be to encourage the Crown to negotiate modern treaties and settle outstanding
Aboriginal rights and title claims in order to perfect or legitimate Crown sovereignty. As Crown negotiations with First Nations stalled, however, the Court proceeded to develop its own framework for the procedural legitimation of Crown sovereignty, i.e. a framework of procedural safeguards designed to weed out “bad” exercises of Crown sovereignty from legitimate ones.

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