Guerin Case

R. v. Guerin [1984]

R. v. Guerin is a landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision that established the Canadian government’s fiduciary duty to First Nations, a trust-like relationship stemming from the sui generis right of Aboriginal title.

In 1956, Musqueam held just over 400 acres of reserve land overlooking the Fraser River in Vancouver’s prestigious Southlands neighbourhood.  At that time, the Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club was looking for land for its golf course. The Club approached the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) in the hopes of leasing 162 prime acres of the Musqueam reserve. The DIA obtained Musqueam’s consent by assuring them that the band would receive revenue from the lease. According to Musqueam, the band was denied legal representation.1 They consented to the deal regardless. After the DIA obtained their consent, DIA representatives re-negotiated the deal with the Club and leased the land on substantially different terms than what Musqueam had agreed to.

Musqueam had been told that they would profit off of the 75-year lease, with rents being adjusted to fair market rates every decade. Unbeknownst to the band, however, the deal was re-negotiated to allow the Club to only pay what amounted to 10% of the fair market rent for the land.2

These changes to the lease were kept secret from the Musqueam for 12 years, until an employee at the DIA revealed them to then-chief Delbert Guerin.  It took five years before Musqueam was able to find a lawyer who would take on the case, as there was little to no legal or governmental acknowledgement of Aboriginal rights and title at that time.3 The case was filed in 1975 and went through three levels of court before the federal court ruled in Musqueam’s favour and awarded $10 million in compensation to the band. The government, however, appealed this ruling and the compensation was repealed.  Musqueam in turn appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled in Musqueam’s favour and re-instated the award.  The Court ruled that the Crown had neglected its fiduciary duty to the Musqueam in its handling of the deal with the Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club. This ruling not only affirmed Musqueam’s rights, but also set a precedent in the recognition of Aboriginal rights in Canada.

R. v. Guerin acknowledged that Canada (the federal government) has a trust-like relationship, or “fiduciary duty” towards First Nations, specifically in regards to reserve lands. In other words, the federal government has the obligation to act in their best interest. Chief Justices Wilson and Dickson interpreted this fiduciary duty as stemming from an Aboriginal interest and title to the land, and the Crown’s relationship to Aboriginal peoples. Wilson understood this relationship to be characterized by Section 18 of the Indian Act, which specifies that reserves are held by the Crown “for the use and benefit of the respective bands for which they are set apart,” and that “the Governor in Council may determine whether any purpose for which lands in a reserve are used or are to be used is for the use and benefit of the band4 (emphasis added). The government demonstrated it did not act in Musqueam’s best interest by not consulting them about the revised terms of the lease.

The concept of “fiduciary duty” has gone on to inform other Aboriginal rights cases as well as the protection of Aboriginal rights under Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution.

By Tanisha Salomons & Erin Hanson

Recommended Resources

Supreme Court of Canada, Guerin v. The Queen, [1984] 2 S.C.R. 335. Available online: 

Musqueam Band. “Musqueam Day 2020.”

Peter Kulchyski, Ed. “Guerin,” in Unjust Relations: Aboriginal Rights in Canadian Courts. (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 1994). 151-181.


1 Musqueam Band. “Musqueam Day 2020.”

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Peter Kulchyski, Ed. Unjust Relations: Aboriginal Rights in Canadian Courts. (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 1994). 151-181.