Are BC Tenancy Laws Applicable to Rent Disputes on First Nations Land?

By Elise Everest

BC’s Manufactured Home Park Tenancy Act (“MHPTA”) will not apply to tenancy agreements on reserve lands where the landlord is an Indian or an Indian Band.  This means that the Residential Tenancy Branch is not able to hear disputes arising from these tenancy agreements.

The Supreme Court of Canada has denied leave to appeal in the case of Sechelt Indian Band v British Columbia (Manufactured Home Park Tenancy Act, Dispute Resolution Officer), a 2013 decision of the BC Court of Appeal, which resolves application of the MHPTA on reserve lands.

What is unique about the Sechelt Indian Band case is that the Sechelt First Nation owns lands transferred to it by the Government of Canada. Nonetheless, the BC Court of Appeal’s decision has broader implications.

Generally, reserve lands are owned by the federal government for the benefit of First Nations communities.  However, as a result of legislation granting the Sechelt Indian Band self-government, ownership of Sechelt reserve lands was transferred to the Band.  The effect of the transfer was to allow registration of the Sechelt Lands in BC’s land registry.

The Sechelt Indian Band case began when the Sechelt First Nation substantially increased its rent for lots of a mobile home park on its land near Powell River.  Tenants of the mobile home park applied to the Residential Tenancy Board to oppose the rent increase.

As the dispute progressed through the courts, the Sechelt Indian Band maintained the position that the Board should not have jurisdiction to adjudicate the dispute. The Band argued that the federal government has sole constitutional authority to enact legislation governing management and possession of reserve lands.  Therefore, the Board, as a provincial administrative body, should not have the authority to make decisions about rights and obligations relating to reserve lands.

In the BC Supreme Court, Justice Silverman concluded that the heart of the dispute between the parties was a contract that had very little to do with the use and occupation of land.  He stated that the dispute was about money.

Historically, the Board has accepted jurisdiction of landlord and tenant disputes on reserve lands related to monetary claims, such as claims for damages or rent arrears.

The Province, acting in support of the Board’s jurisdiction, argued that under the Band’s self-governing powers it was able to pass laws respecting tenancy disputes. Because it had not, it could not use “a self-created vacuum” to impose its rent increase without any restrictions or due process such as that offered by the MHPTA.

Tenants of the manufactured home park argued that because the Sechelt Lands are owned by the Sechelt First Nation, the Sechelt Lands are not reserve lands, and provincial laws should apply.

In the result, the BC Court of Appeal agreed with the arguments of the Sechelt Indian Band.

While the Court recognized that there was a monetary aspect to the specific dispute, it found that as a whole, the MHPTA does purport to regulate possession of land under tenancy arrangements, making it inapplicable to reserve lands.

In response to the tenants’ arguments, the BC Court of Appeal found that the status of the Sechelt Lands is preserved under the Band’s self-government legislation as reserve lands. The Court concluded that the purpose of transferring ownership of the lands to the Band was not to change the lands’ character, but to make the lands more economically useful to the Band.

As such, the provisions of the Manufactured Home Park Tenancy Act were found to be inapplicable to the dispute between the tenants and the Sechelt Indian Band.

Noteworthy is that this case pertains to a situation where the tenancy agreement is with an Indian band, and not a tenancy dispute involving lessees and sub-lessees who are non-Indians.

If you would like more information about leases on reserve land, please contact one of Pushor Mitchell’s First Nations Lawyers. Learn about our First Nations practice group by visiting First Nations Law.