St. Catherines Milling & Lumber Co.
v. The Queen
14 App. Cas. 46 (J.C.P.C.)
Annotation History of Case
Reasons of the J.C.P.C. Link to Law Office
A Brief Introduction to Aboriginal Law in Canada





This case, involving Ojibway of Treaty No. 3 who never appeared before any court, is a leading decision in Canada on the different division of legislative powers and property rights under the Constitution.

At issue were treaty lands thought to be within Rupert's Land when Canada entered into Treaty 3 in 1873. Subsequently, an arbitration and constitutional amendment placed about two-thirds of the area in Ontario. Canada then argued that it was entitled under the Treaty, and its legislative authority, under section 91 (24), of the Constitution Act, 1867 ("Indians and Lands reserved for the Indians") to administer Treaty lands. The lumber company's federal permit to a timber berth on Lake Wabigoon was challenged by the Province, and that challenge succeeded in all the lower courts.

Before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, Ontario argued that section 91 (24) only extended to lands that were actually 'Indian reserves' as that expression had been used in pre-Confederation legislation to refer to small tracts of land actually set aside for various tribes. The Privy Council referred to the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and ruled that Parliament had authority to legislate in respect of "all lands reserved, under any terms and conditions, for Indian occupation', including Proclamation lands. The area in dispute was within the Proclamation's reservation of hunting grounds, and the Indians had, prior to treaty, an Aboriginal or Indian title to those lands.

This Indian title was, for purposes of section 109 of the Constitution Act, 1867 (then known as the "British North America Act"), "an interest other than that of the Province". After that interest was ceded under Treaty, however, the Province's interest became a plenum dominium: the full, unencumbered beneficial interest of the Crown subject to the administration and control of the provincial legislature. Canada had no property right, nor did the Treaty show that the Indians were intended to have the beneficial interest in timber revenues. For this reason, the appeal failed.

Other issues arose from this decision. The Privy Council said, for example, that Ontario must relieve Canada of its obligations under the treaty since Ontario had the benefit of it, but subsequent litigation by Canada failed on that point too. In Ontario Mining Co. v. Seybold, [1903] A.C. 73, the Privy Council extended the rule to deny the Indians any beneficial interest in the reserves that had been set apart for them under the Treaty. It took a series of federal/provincial agreements, culminating in 1924 Canada/Ontario Indian Reserve Lands Agreement, S.C. 1924, c. 48, to provide an interim solution to the problems created these decisions; see also the "Star Chrome" decision of the Privy Council, [1921] 1 A.C. 401, a case on the same point from Quebec.

St. Catherine's Milling is frequently quoted for observations about Aboriginal, or Indian, title even though the Privy Council was careful to say that it was not ruling upon 'the precise character of the Indian interest'. Some of those observations were later varied by the Supreme Court of Canada in Guerin. Even with these limitations, however, this case is the starting point for an understanding of Aboriginal law in Canada.


History of the Case

The decision of the Privy Council is reported at (1888), 14 App. Cas. 46, denying an appeal from the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada (1887), 13 S.C.R. 577; upholding the lower court decisions of the Ontario Court of Appeal (1886), 13 O.A.R. 148 and of Chancellor Boyd at trial (1885), 10 O.R. 196 (Ch.).


Reasons of the
Judicial Committee of the Privy Council

Note: This committee of law lords, sitting in London, England, was the ulitmate court of appeal for Canada until 1949, when its role vis à vis this country was abolished. The Committee still exists, however, and remains the final court for many former British territories.

Lord Watson:

On the 3rd of October, 1873, a formal treaty or contract was concluded between commiasionera appointed by the Governments of the Dominion of Canada, on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen, of the one part, and a number of chiefs and headmen duly chosen to represent the Salteaux tribe of Ojibbeway Indians, of the other part, by which the latter, for certain considerations, released and surrendered to the Government of the Dominion, for Her Majesty and her successors, the whole right and title of the Indian inhabitants whom they represented, to a tract of country upwards of 50,000 square miles in extent. By an article of the treaty it is stipulated that, subject to such regulations as may be made by the Dominion Government, the Indians are to have [the] right to pursue their avocations of hunting and fishing through out the surrendered territory, with the exception of those portions of it which may, from time to time, be required or taken up for settlement, mining, lumbering, or other purposes.

Of the territory thus ceded to the Crown, an area of not less than 32,000 square miles is situated within the boundaries of the Province of Ontario; and, with respect to that area, a controversy has arisen between the Dominion and Ontario, each of them maintaining that the legal effect of extinguishing the Indian title has been to transmit to itself the entire beneficial interest of the lands, as now vested in the Crown, freed from incumbrance of any kind, save the qualified privilege of hunting and fishing mentioned in the treaty.

Acting on the assumption that the beneficial interest in these lands had passed to the Dominion Government, their Crown Timber Agent, on the 1st of May, 1883, issued to the appellants, the St. Catherine's Milling and Lumber Company, a permit to cut and carry away one million feet of lumber from a specified portion of the disputed area. The appellants having availed themselves of that licence, a writ was filed against them in the Chancery Division of the High Court of Ontario, at the instance of the Queen on the information of the Attorney-General of the Province, praying: (1) a declaration that the appellants have no rights in respect of the timber cut by them upon the lands specified in their permit; (2) an injunction restraining them from trespassing on the premises and from cutting any timber thereon; (3) an injunction against the removal of timber already cut; and (4) decree for the damage occasioned by their wrongful acts. The Chancellor of Ontario, on the 10th of June, 1885, decerned with costs against the appellants, in terms of the first three of these conclusions, and referred the amount of damage to the Master in Ordinary. The judgment of the learned Chancellor was unanimously affirmed on the 20th of April, 1886, by the Court of Appeal for Ontario, and an appeal taken from their decision to the Supreme Court of Canada was dismissed on the 20th of June, 1887, by a majority of four of the six judges constituting the court.

Although the present case relates exclusively to the right of the Government of Canada to dispose of the timber in question to the appellant company, yet its decision necessarily involves the determination of the larger question between that government and the province of Ontario with respect to the legal consequences of the treaty of 1873. In these circumstances, Her Majesty, by the same order which gave the appellants leave to bring the judgment of the Court below under the review of this Board, was pleased to direct that the Government of the Dominion of Canada should be at liberty to intervene in this appeal, or to argue the same upon a special case raising the legal question in dispute. The Dominion Government elected to take the first of these courses, and their Lordships have had the advantage of hearing from their counsel an able and exhaustive argument in support of their claim to that part of the ceded territory which lies within the provincial boundaries of Ontario.

The capture of Quebec in 1759, and the capitulation of Montreal in 1760, were followed in 1763 by the cession to Great Britain of Canada and all its dependencies, with the sovereignty, property, and possession, and all other rights which had at any previous time been held or acquired by the Crown of France. A royal proclamation was issued on the 7th of October, 1763, shortly after the date of the Treaty of Paris, by which His Majesty King George erected four distinct and separate Governments, styled respectively, Quebec, East Florida, West Florida, and Grenada, specific boundaries being assigned to each of them. Upon the narrative that it was just and reasonable that the several nations and tribes of Indians who lived under British protection should not be molested or disturbed in the 'possession of such parts of Our dominions and territories as, not having been ceded to or purchased by us, are reserved to them or any of them as their hunting grounds,' it is declared that no governor or commander-in-chief in any of the new colonies of Quebec, East Florida, or West Florida, do presume on any pretence to grant warrants of survey or pass any patents for lands beyond the bounds of their respective governments, or 'until Our further pleasure be known,' upon any lands whatever which, not having been ceded or purchased as aforesaid, are reserved to the said Indians or any of them. It was further declared 'to be Our Royal will, for the present, as aforesaid, to reserve under Our sovereignty, protection, and dominion, for the use of the said Indians, all the land and territories not included within the limits of Our said three new Governments, or within the limits of the territory granted to the Hudson's Bay Company .' The proclamation also enacts that no private person shall make any purchase from the Indians of lands reserved to them within those colonies where settlement was permitted, and that all purchases must be on behalf of the Crown, in a public assembly of the Indians, by the governor or commander-in-chief of the colony in which the lands lie.

The territory in dispute has been in Indian occupation from the date of the proclamation until 1873. During that interval of time Indian affairs have been administered successively by the Crown, by the Provincial Governments, and ( since the passing of the British North America Act, [Constitution Act, 1867] ), by the Government of the Dominion. The policy of these administrations has been all along the same in this respect, that the Indian inhabitants have been precluded from entering into any transaction with a subject for the sale or transfer of their interest in the land, and have only been permitted to surrender their rights to the Crown by a formal contract, duly ratified in a meeting of their chiefs or head men convened for the purpose. Whilst there have been changes in the administrative authority, there has been no change since the year 1763 in ,the character of the interest which its Indian inhabitants had in the lands surrendered by the treaty. Their possession, such as it was, can only be ascribed to the general provisions made by the royal proclamation in favour of all Indian tribes then living under the sovereignty and protection of the British Crown. It was suggested in the course of the argument for the Dominion, that inasmuch as the proclamation recites that the territories thereby reserved for Indians had never 'been ceded to or purchased by' the Crown, the entire property of the land remained with them. That inference is, however, at variance with the terms of the instrument, which shew that the tenure of the Indians was a personal and usufructuary right, dependent upon the good will of the Sovereign. The lands reserved are expressly stated to be 'parts of Our dominions and territories;' and it is declared to be the will and pleasure of the sovereign that, 'for the present,' they shall be reserved for the use of the Indians, as their hunting grounds, under his protection and dominion. There was a great deal of learned discussion at the Bar with respect to the precise quality of the Indian right, but their Lordships do not consider it necessary to express any opinion upon the point. It appears to them to be sufficient for the purposes of this case that there has beenall along vested in the Crown a substantial and paramount estate, underlying the Indian title, which became a plenum dominium whenever that title was surrendered or otherwise extinguished.

By an Imperial statute passed in the year 1840 (3 & 4 Vict. c. 35), the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, then known as Upper and Lower Canada, were united under the name of the Province of Canada, and it was, inter alia, enacted that, in consideration of certain annual payments which Her Majesty had agreed to accept by way of civil list, the produce of all territorial and other revenues at the disposal of the Crown arising in either of the united Provinces should be paid into the consolidated fund of the new Province. There was no transfer to the Province of any legal estate in the Crown lands, which continued to be vested in the Sovereign; but all moneys realized by sales or in any other manner became the property of the Province. In other words, all beneficial interest in such lands within the provincial boundaries belonging to the Queen, and either producing or capable of producing revenue, passed to the Province, the title still remaining inthe Crown. That continued to be the right of the Province until the passing of the British North America Act, 1867 [Constitution Act, 1867]. Had the Indian inhabitants of the area in question released their interest in it to the Crown at any time between 1840 and the date of that Act, it does not seem to admit of doubt, and it was not disputed by the learned counsel for the Dominion, that all revenues derived from its being taken up for settlement, mining, lumbering, and other purposes would have been the property of the Province of Canada. The case maintained for the appellants is that the Act of 1867 transferred to the Dominion all interest in Indian lands which previously belonged to the Province.

The Act of 1867, which created the Federal Government, repealed the Act of 1840, and restored the Upper and Lower Canadas to the condition of separate Provinces, under the titles of Ontario and Quebec, due provision being made (sect. 142) for the division between them of the property and assets of the United Province, with the exception of certain items specified in the fourth schedule, which are still held by them jointly. The Act also contains careful provisions for the distribution of legislative powers and of revenues and assets between the respective Provinces included in the Union, on the one hand, and the Dominion, on the other. The conflicting claims to the ceded territory maintained by the Dominion and the Province of Ontario are wholly dependent upon these statutory provisions. In construing these enactments, it must always be kept in view that, wherever public land with its incidents is described as 'the property of' or as 'belonging to' the Dominion or a Province, these expressions merely import that the right to its beneficial title, or to its proceeds, has been appropriated to the Dominion or the Province, as the case may be, and is subject to the control of its legislature, the land itself being vested in the Crown.

Sect. 108 enacts that the public works and undertakings enumerated in Schedule 3 shall be the property of Canada. As specified in the schedule, these consist of public undertakings which might be fairly considered to exist for the benefit of all the Provinces federally united, of lands and buildings necessary for carrying on the customs or postal service of the Dominion, or required for the purpose of national defence, and of lands set apart for general public purposes. It is obvious that the enumeration cannot be reasonably held to include Crown lands which are reserved for Indian use. The only other clause in the Act by which a share of what previously constituted provincial revenues and assets is directly assigned to the Dominion is sect. 102. It enacts that all 'duties and revenues' over which the respective legislatures of the United Provinces had and have power of appropriation, 'except such portions thereof as are by this Act reserved to the respective legislatures of the Provinces, or are raised by them in accordance with the special powers conferred upon them by this Act,' shall form one consolidated fund, to be appropriated for the public service of Canada. The extent to which duties and revenues arising within the limits of Ontario, and over which the legislature of the old Province of Canada possessed the power of appropriation before the passing of the Act have been transferred to the Dominion by this clause, can only be ascertained by reference to the two exceptions which it makes in favour of the new provincial legislatures.

The second of these exceptions has really no bearing on the present case, because it comprises nothing beyond the revenues which provincial legislatures are empowered to raise by means of direct taxation for Provincial purposes, in terms of sect. 92(2). The first of them, which appears to comprehend the whole sources of revenue reserved to the provinces by sect. 109, is of material consequence. Sect. 109 provides that 'all lands, mines, minerals, and royalties belonging to the several Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, at the union, and all sums then due or payable for such lands, mines, minerals, or royalties, shall belong to the several Provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, in which the same are situate or arise, subject to any trusts existing in respect thereof, and to any interest other than that of the Province in the same.' In connection with this clause it may be observed that, by sect. 117, it is declared that the Provinces shall retain their respective public property not otherwise disposed of in the Act, subject to the right of Canada to assume any lands or public property required for fortifications or for the defence of the country. A different form of expression is used to define the subject-matter of the first exception, and the property which is directly appropriated to the Provinces; but it hardly admits of doubt that the interests in land, mines, minerals, and royalties, which by sect. 109 are declared to belong to the Provinces, include, if they are not identica1 with, the 'duties and revenues' first excepted in sect. 102.

The enactments of sect. 109 are, in the opinion of their Lordships, sufficient to give to each Province, subject to the administration and control of its own Legislature, the entire beneficial interest of the Crown in all lands within its boundaries, which at the time of the union were vested in the Crown, with the exception of such lands as the Dominion acquired right to under sect. 108, or might assume for the purposes specified in sect. 117. Its legal effect is to exclude from the duties and revenues appropriated to the Dominion all the ordinary territorial revenues of the Crown arising within the Provinces. That construction of the statute was accepted by this Board in deciding Attorney-General of Ontario v. Mercer, (8 App. Cas. 767), where the controversy related to land granted in fee simple to a subject before 1867, which became escheat to the Crown in the year 1871. The Lord Chancellor (Earl Selborne) in delivering judgment in that case, said (p. 776): 'It was not disputed, in the argument for the Dominion at the bar, that all territorial revenues arising within each Province from lands ( in which term must be comprehended all estates in land) which at the time of the union belonged to the Crown by sect.109; and it was admitted that no distinction could, in that respect, be made between lands then ungranted, and lands which had previously reverted to the Crown by escheat. But it was insisted that a line was drawn at the date of the union, and that the words were not sufficient to reserve any lands afterwards escheated which at the time of the union were in private hands, and did not then belong to the Crown. Their Lordships indicated an opinion to the effect that the escheat would not, in the special circumstances of that case, have passed to the Province as 'lands;' but they held that it fell within the class of rights reserved to the Provinces as 'royalties' by sect. 109.

Had its Indian inhabitants been the owners in fee simple of the territory which they surrendered by the treaty of 1873, Attorney-General of Ontario v. Mercer might have been an authority for holding that the Province of Ontario could derive no benefit form the cession, in respect that the land was not vested in the Crown at the time of the union. But that was not the character of the Indian interest. The Crown has had all along a present proprietary estate in the land, upon which the Indian title was a mere burden. The ceded territory was at the time of the union, land vested in the Crown, subject to 'an interest other than that of the Province in the same,' within the meaning of sect. 109; and must now belong to Ontario in terms of that clause, unless its rights have been taken away by some provision of the Act of 1867 other than those already noticed.

In the course of the argument the claim of the Dominion to the ceded territory was rested upon the provisions of sect. 91 (24) which in express terms confer upon the Parliament of Canada power to make laws for 'Indians, and lands reserved for the Indians.' It was urged that the exclusive power of legislation and administration carried with it, by necessary implication, any patrimonial interest which the Crown might have had in the reserved lands. In reply to that reasoning, counsel for Ontario referred us to a series of provincial statutes prior in date to the Act of 1867 [Constitution Act, 1867], for the purpose of shewing that the expression 'Indian reserves' was used in legislative language to designate certain lands in which the Indians had, after the royal proclamation of 1763, acquired a special interest, by treaty or otherwise, and did not apply to land occupied by them in virtue of the proclamation. The argument might have deserved consideration if the expression had been adopted by the British Parliament in 1867, but it does not occur in sect. 91(24), and the words actually used are, according to their natural meaning, sufficient to include all lands reserved, upon any terms or conditions, for Indian occupation. It appears to be the plain policy of the Act that, in order to ensure uniformity of administration, all such lands, and Indian affairs generally, shall be under the legislative control of one central authority.

Their Lordships are, however, unable to assent to the argument for the Dominion founded on sect. 9 (24). There can be no à priori probability that the British Legislature, in a branch of the statute which professes to deal only with the distribution of legislative power, intended to deprive the Provinces of rights which are expressly given them in that branch of it which relates to the distribution of revenues and assets. The fact that the power of legislating for Indians, and for lands which are reserved to their use, has been entrusted to the Parliament of the Dominion is not in the least degree inconsistent with the right of the Provinces to a beneficial interest in these lands, available to them as source of revenue whenever the estate of the Crown is disencumbered of the Indian title.

By the treaty of 1873 the Indian inhabitants ceded and releaaed the territory in dispute, in order that it might be opened up for settlement, immigration,and such other purpose as to Her Majesty might seem fit, to the Government of the Dominion of Canada, for the Queen and Her successors for ever. It was argued that a cession in these terms was in effect a conveyance to the Dominion Government of the whole rights of the Indians, with consent of the Crown. That is not the natural import of the language of the treaty, which purports to be from beginning to end a transaction between the Indians and the Crown; and the surrender is in substance made to the Crown. Even if its language had been more favourable to the argument of the Dominion upon this point, it is abundantly clear that the commissioners who represented Her Majesty, whilst they had full authority to accept a surrender to the Crown, had neither authority nor power to take away from Ontario the interest which had been assigned to that province by the Imperial Statute of 1867.

These considerations appear to their Lordships to be sufficient for the disposal of this appeal. The treaty leaves the Indians no right whatever to the timber growing upon the lands which they gave up, which is now fully vested in the Crown, all revenues derivable from the sale of such portions of it as are situate within the boundaries of Ontario being the property of that Province. The fact, that it still possesses exclusive power to regulate the Indians' privilege of hunting and fishing, cannot confer upon the Dominion power to dispose, by issuing permits or otherwise, of the beneficial interest in the timber which has now passed to Ontario. Seeing that the benefit of the surrender accrues to her, Ontario must, of course, relieve the Crown, and the Dominion, of all obligations involving the payment of money which were undertaken by Her Majesty, and which are said to have been in part fulfilled by the Dominion Government. There may be other questions behind, with respect to the right to determine to what extent, and at what periods, the disputed territory, over which the Indians still exercise their avocations of hunting and fishing, is to be taken up for settlement or other purposes, but none of these questions are raised for decision in the present suit.

Their Lordships will therefore humbly advise Her Majesty that the judgment of the Supreme Court of Canada ought to be affirmed, and the appeal dismissed. It appears to them that there ought to be no costs of the appeal.

Appeal dismissed




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