The Van der Peet Test: Constitutional Recognition or Constitutional Restriction?

  • Alexandra Kent
Keywords: Van der Peet, Stó, lō First Nation, Indigenous Rights, Constitution, Resistance


This article uses the case of R. v. Van der Peet to critically analyze the role of language in Section 35(1) of the Canadian Constitution in perpetuating asymmetrical power dynamics within the framework of colonialism. In defining which practices are protected in the form of Indigenous rights under Section 35(1), the courts have imposed a two-stage test called the Integral to a Distinctive Culture Test or Van der Peet Test. This test stipulates three criteria; the practice must: originate from "pre-contact", be "distinctive", and conform or "reconcile" with state sovereignty. This article demonstrates how these criteria hinder the development of Indigenous rights, restrict the scope of such rights, and marginalize Indigenous peoples in Canadian society. Analyzing the role of the deliberative wording of this constitutional order reveals a foundation for contemporary colonialism and oppression, whereby colonial power relations are facilitated and secured by antiquated, ethnocentric ideals upheld by the Judiciary. Exposing the illegitimacy embedded within the State's uninhibited, exclusive sovereignty directs this discussion to the suggestion that the State lacks the authority to grant Indigenous rights. This article concludes with the argument that, as the original inhabitants of this land, Indigenous Nations possess the inherent extra-constitutional right to self-determination that can only be achieved through self-affirmation.


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