In the 1970s, the Crees of Northern Quebec were having trouble finding lawyers suitable – and willing – to assist them as they sought to protect their land, rights and way of life. Peter Hutchins, then a new lawyer employed in a fledgling firm, took up the Crees’ cause and helped represent them in a lawsuit against Hydro-Québec, which proposed to develop a series of flood-causing dams in the James Bay region.
Mr. Hutchins, who died at age 77 in a Montreal hospital on Jan. 13, helped negotiate the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement with the federal and Quebec governments. The accord allowed the Quebec government to construct hydroelectric dams near James Bay in return for compensation of $225-million to the Cree and Inuit people living in the region. It also recognized the Indigenous peoples’ right to self-governance, touching on issues such as health, education, policing, environmental and social protection, hunting, fishing and trapping. Signed in 1975, the deal marked the first modern Canadian treaty between the Crown and a First Nation.
“Peter was one of the legal pioneers in this field and successfully helped to entrench Aboriginal rights as a foundation pillar in Canadian law,” said Peter Grant, a Vancouver-based lawyer who partnered with Mr. Hutchins at Hutchins Soroka & Grant. Mr. Hutchins’s work in the field predated the affirmation of Indigenous legal rights associated with passage of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 and decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada that soon followed.
Mr. Hutchins went on to represent many other Indigenous groups, arguing more than 10 cases before the Supreme Court of Canada and several more in other courts across the country. Meanwhile, he helped negotiate treaties; co-founded and served as the first chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s National Aboriginal Law Section; and created the first course in Aboriginal law at McGill’s law school, where he taught for 15 years. He also wrote extensively about Indigenous law, and his efforts led to the creation of the Indigenous Bar Association for Aboriginal lawyers.
“I think that his legacy was to start the education and awareness of Indigenous rights at a time when we were all struggling to bring that forward,” said Marsha Smoke, a First Nations strategist who helped implement the James Bay agreement. “We were working at it from a political perspective. He was working at it from a legal perspective. I think that’s his legacy – walking with the people.”
Peter William Hutchins was born Nov. 6, 1945, in Montreal. He was the middle child, and only son, of three children born to Forbes and Valerie (née Laurie) Hutchins. Forbes Hutchins owned and operated a steel company and hardware stores based in Montreal and Pembroke, Ont., where Peter spent part of his youth. Valerie Hutchins was primarily a homemaker.
Attending Bishop’s College School in Lennoxville, Que., Peter competed in hockey, rugby and football, served in cadets and was the head chorister and prefect.
From a young age, he developed a desire to protect animals, setting the stage for future pro bono legal work on their behalf. “He really was a softy for any animal story,” his wife, Zandy Hutchins, said.
He also developed a love for the outdoors and was a member of a Quebec mountain-climbing team that posted the first recorded ascent of Mount Quebec, in Yukon, during Canada’s centennial celebrations in 1967.
After studying history and political science at McGill, he did a law degree at Laval University and obtained a Master of Laws degree from the London School of Economics. While training at the law firm now known as Fasken in Montreal, he met lawyer James O’Reilly, who was then specializing in the emerging field of Aboriginal law and representing the Crees of Northern Quebec. Wary that Fasken could have a conflict of interest because Hydro-Québec was also a client, Mr. O’Reilly left and started his own firm to represent the Crees. Mr. Hutchins, newly called to the Quebec Bar and eager to work on the case, joined the startup.
“We were taking a huge risk,” Mr. O’Reilly said. “I didn’t want anybody who didn’t want to volunteer. He really stepped up to the plate.”
Along with his colleagues, Mr. Hutchins helped the Crees win a 1973 Quebec Superior Court ruling that marked the first legal recognition of Indigenous rights in Canada, prompting the James Bay Agreement. Philip Awashish, a James Bay Agreement signatory and former leader of the Crees of Northern Quebec, praised Mr. Hutchins for helping his people restore their cultural integrity, historical identity and self-governing status over a 50-year period.
Mr. Awashish and Mr. Hutchins also participated in negotiations that led to a Quebec law that granted self-government to the Cree and Naskapi First Nations. The duo also helped create an amendment to the 1916 Canada-U.S. Migratory Birds Convention that allows Indigenous people to hunt migratory birds throughout the year rather than seasonally.
“He was a close friend and [confidant],” said Mr. Awashish in a tribute that he shared on social media and with The Globe. “I had many wonderful times and I cherish my memories of friendship with Peter.”
So does Konrad Sioui. In 1990, Mr. Hutchins helped Mr. Sioui and his three brothers obtain acquittals in the Supreme Court of Canada – 10 years after they were charged with illegally cutting down trees, camping and making fires in Quebec’s Jacques Cartier Park, which is adjacent to the reserve where they lived. Acting for the Assembly of First Nations, an intervenor in the case, Mr. Hutchins confirmed the Sioui brothers’ activities were permissible under a 1760 treaty between their Huron-Wendat First Nation and the British Crown.
“The judges were asking questions to Peter and Peter was teaching the judges,” Mr. Sioui recalled.
According to Mr. O’Reilly, the Sioui decision considerably enlarged the definition of a treaty between Aboriginal peoples and the Crown and became a precedent for the definition and interpretation of a treaty under Section 35 of the 1982 Constitution Act, which affirms Aboriginal and treaty rights of Aboriginal peoples. The decision was also important in that the Supreme Court recognized that, historically, Aboriginal collectivités, or communities, were treated as nations.
“This represented an advancement at that time in the law of Canada relating to Aboriginal peoples and helped pave the way for stronger recognition of the status of Aboriginal nations in the last two decades,” said Mr. O’Reilly, who was inducted into the Order of Canada in 2019 for his work in Aboriginal law.
Mr. Sioui later became grand chief of the Huron-Wendat and hired Mr. Hutchins to handle a land-claim case. “He had this capacity to be able to speak equally with the rich or the poor,” Mr. Sioui said. “He didn’t mind. He was quite a man.”
In a notable Ontario case, Mr. Hutchins represented First Nations fighting Crown contraventions of the 1923 Williams Treaties. His efforts led to a settlement of the quarter-century-long case and paved the way for the 2018 Williams Treaties agreement whereby the Ontario and federal governments provided a total of $1.1-billion to seven First Nations.
“He was a real fighter for the rights of Indigenous people,” Mr. Grant said.
Despite facing long odds of success, Mr. Hutchins’s view was: How do we get there? “He had passion in what he did,” Mr. Grant said.
Jameela Jeeroburkhan, a Montreal-based lawyer and Aboriginal law specialist who articled under Mr. Hutchins, lauded him for guiding law students and young lawyers and for taking the time to recognize and appreciate them and provide constructive criticism.
“Now, I’m an employer and I try and do the same,” said Ms. Jeeroburkhan, a partner in the law firm Dionne Schulze.
Mr. Hutchins was willing to listen to everyone’s opinion, according to his wife. “He had the most generosity of spirit of anybody I’ve ever met,” she said.
Mr. Hutchins battled diabetes – from the time he was a teen – and several other health issues. But they did not deter his “mission,” his son, Will, said. “This [was] a guy who just put his head down and kept going,” he said.
Peter Hutchins leaves his wife of 53 years, their son, three grandchildren and his younger sister, Stephanie Caldicott.