Coming out of hibernation : the Canadian public trust doctrine


University of British Columbia

Date Issued


Document Type



Master of Laws - LLM




This thesis appears to be the first academic recognition of the public trust doctrine at Canadian common law. Surprisingly, despite the explosion of the doctrine in the United States, there has been little consideration of the doctrine by Canadian courts and only one Canadian article on the subject. To date, Canadian interest in the doctrine has been primarily statutory. In essence, the public trust doctrine means that despite its ownership of natural resources, the government holds certain resources, such as navigable waters, on trust or in a fiduciary capacity for the public. The origins of the doctrine are somewhat vague, but can be traced back to Roman law and the English public rights of navigation and fishing. A review of these public rights reveals that at both law and economics, certain resources are "special" and inherently public in nature. A long and dusty trail through Canadian law reports reveals that Canadian courts have recognized a public trust with respect to navigation and fishing as well as highways. Although the public trust concerning navigation and fishing has lain dormant since the late nineteenth century, the distinctive features of the public rights of navigation and fishing which led both American and Canadian courts to declare a public trust, have been mirrored in Canadian law. Coupled with the initial Canadian recognition of the public trust, the foundations therefore exist for a modern common law revival of the public trust doctrine in Canada. The likely consequences of recognition of the public trust at Canadian common law are : (1) the recognition of a substantive right, and therefore legal standing, in members of the public to vindicate public trust interests; (2) the imposition of an affirmative fiduciary obligation on government with respect to trust resources; (3) the imposition of an administrative process on government with respect to supervision and disposition of public trust resources; (4) restrictions on alienation of trust resources, in particular the restriction that legislation is required to modify or extinguish public trust resources and, (5) in an environmental context, recognition of the importance of the natural environment and the special and inter-related nature of trust resources.


Public use -- Canada; Natural resources -- Law and legislation -- Canada; Public use -- United States; Natural resources -- Law and legislation -- United States; Public use -- England -- History; Natural resources -- Law and legislation -- England -- History

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