In R v. Drybones (1970), the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a provision of the Indian Act was “inoperative” — meaning no longer valid or in effect — because it violated section 1(b) of the Canadian Bill of Rights, which guarantees equality before the law.
Joseph Drybones — a Status Indian — had become intoxicated at the bar at Old Stope Hotel in Yellowknife, NT, on the evening of 8 April 1967. According to section 94(b) of the Indian Act it was illegal for Status Indians to become intoxicated off their reserves. Drybones was subsequently picked up by local authorities and charged with violating section 94(b) of the Indian Act.
Court Cases and Rulings
Drybones appeared before a magistrateand pled guilty to the charge against him. He did this without a legal representative or the ability to speak the language of the court, English. On 10 April, Drybones was sentenced to pay a $10 fine, in addition to court costs.
After acquiring a lawyer, Drybones appealed the ruling to the Territorial Court of the Northwest Territories. Drybones’ counsel argued that his first trial was not fair because, not being able to speak English, he did not understand his guilty plea. Drybones also appealed based on the Canadian Bill of Rights, which guarantees equality before the law in section 1(b). Drybones was only charged for intoxication because he was Indigenous; a non-Indigenous drunk person would not have faced the same disciplinary action. Therefore, the Indian Act violated Drybones’ equality before the law, as guaranteed in section 1(b) of the Bill of Rights. The court acquitted Drybones.
The Crown first appealed this judgment to the Court of Appeal for the Northwest Territories, but their case was dismissed. The Crown then appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. In a six to three judgment, the court concluded that Drybones had been punished because of his race under a law with a different scope and penalty from the law governing other Canadians. Furthermore, the court ruled that if a section of a federal statute cannot be reasonably interpreted and applied without abolishing, limiting or infringing upon one of the rights or liberties recognized in the Bill of Rights, it is inoperative (i.e., ineffectual), unless Parliament expressly declares that it is to apply notwithstanding the Bill of Rights.
The end result was that the Supreme Court dismissed the Crown’s appeal and upheld Drybones’ acquittal. In 1971, Parliament repealed section 94 of the Indian Act.
Drybones is a landmark case regarding Indigenous peoples in Canadian law. The case brought down a provision of the Indian Act that racially discriminated against Indigenous peoples.
J. Grant Sinclair, “The Queen v. Drybones: The Supreme Court of Canada and the Canadian Bill of Rights,” vol. 8, no. 3 Osgoode Hall Law Journal (1970).