The Court of Appeal for Yukon has overturned a territorial Supreme Court's land claim case ruling that courts do not have the authority to enforce promises made by the Crown more than 100 years ago.

The Ross River Dena Council says the Canadian government of today is obliged to keep promises it made more than a century ago. 

The First Nation says it never signed any land claim agreements or treaties. But it says documents from 140 years ago, which transfer that land to the government, promised compensation and to protect their rights to the land.

Canada's Attorney General argued the promises were never meant to be kept and the courts were never meant to enforce them. Lawyers for the federal government say the court did not have jurisdiction to settle the issue because in 1870 the courts would not have been able to force the ccrown to keep its promises.

After a complex trial, Yukon's Supreme Court agreed.

The First Nation appealed.  And on Thursday, the Yukon Court of Appeal determined the Supreme Court judge was asked — and answered — the wrong question.

The federal government lawyers asked the Yukon Supreme Court judge to focus on the question: would the courts have had any authority to enforce promises made by the Crown in the 1870 order which created Yukon?

The Supreme Court concluded the courts would not. However, the appeal court says that's the wrong question and the issues have to be looked at in a 21st-century light. 

The appeal court says the case is crucial. It has sent it back to the Supreme Court for a new trial.

The case hinges on documents and records dating back to 1870 when most of Western Canada and the North were still called Rupert’s Land.

The documents, which detail the transfer of that land to Canada, along with the record of land claims since then, are now compiled in a stack of thick binders piled more than a metre high.

First Nations representatives say the case is important because it could affect aboriginal rights to major portions of land in Yukon. The final decision in the case could wind up re-writing land claim law.