Judge says Parks Canada unfairly rejected licence application of N.W.T. fishing lodge

A boat in the East Arm of Great Slave Lake in 2016. Under agreements setting out how the Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve will be managed, applications for business licences must be reviewed by a management board which, in turn, makes recommendations to Parks Canada. (Andrew Pacey/CBC)

Owners of Trophy Lodge, in Thaidene Nëné National Park, challenged rejection of operating licence and won

A federal judge has set aside a Parks Canada decision to deny a longtime fishing lodge on Great Slave Lake a licence to continue operating.

Trophy Lodge is located at remote Fort Reliance, near the end of the pristine East Arm of the lake in the N.W.T. It is now within Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve, which was established in 2019.

Any business wishing to operate within a national park needs a licence from Parks Canada. In 2022, Trophy Lodge was sold and the new owners applied for a licence.

The agency denied the application, in part as a gesture of reconciliation with Indigenous people, according to the written Federal Court decision issued on Wednesday.

Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve is jointly run by Parks Canada, the Łutsel K’e Dene First Nation, Northwest Territory Metis Nation, Deninu Kųę́ First Nation and Yellowknives Dene.

Under agreements setting out how the park will be managed, applications for business licences must be reviewed by a management board which, in turn, makes recommendations to Parks Canada.

The board recommended that the Trophy Lodge licence application be denied. Parks Canada, which has previously agreed that the lodge should get a licence, agreed to follow the board’s recommendation.

According to the court decision, the new owners of Trophy Lodge were not given an opportunity to respond to the board’s reasons for rejecting the licence.

In its rejection of the licence, Parks Canada wrote that “reconciliation and relationships with Indigenous partners are paramount for Parks Canada in regards to Thaidene [Nëné] National Park Reserve.”

“These factors outweigh the benefit that the proposed business may have.”

Federal Court Justice Guy Régimbald ruled that Parks Canada breached the rules of fairness in its handling of the application. The lodge owners were not given an opportunity to respond to the management board’s reasons for recommending the application be rejected, he said.

Parks Canada’s CEO made the final decision without seeing the lodge owners’ business licence application package, which has been revised to incorporate terms and conditions recommended by the Łutsel K’e Dene First Nation and Parks Canada after they reviewed the owners’ initial application. The judge said that the decision to reject the licence would have been set aside for that reason alone.

No evidence for how application denial would further reconciliation

The judge also said it wasn’t enough for Parks Canada to reject the application to further reconciliation without also providing some evidence of why the denial was necessary for reconciliation.

The judge also said the management board’s recommendation that the licence application be rejected was based on a “misunderstanding of the evaluation criteria and unreasonable assessments of the facts.”

According to the written decisions, the application that was improperly rejected would have expired this past March. So though the decision was set aside, it has essentially no effect.

The owners have applied for a new licence, and the judge said Parks Canada should consider it in light of his decision on the previous application.

He also ordered the owners to pay Parks Canada and the Łutsel K’e Dene First Nation $3,000 each in legal fees for defending themselves against a motion the owners brought that had little chance of success.

In court documents, the Łutsel K’e Dene First Nation said it spent a total of $154,956 in legal fees on the case.

In an email to CBC News, one of the lodge owners said they did not wish to comment on the decision. Parks Canada did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Nunavut government wants to open a protected area in the High Arctic to tourism, CBC News

Finland: Popularity of Finland’s national parks continues to rise, including in Lapland, Yle News

Richard Gleeson, CBC News

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