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New Report Urges Canada to Address Métis Rights

Aug 15, 2016

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By James Oloo

On January 8, 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada released its decision in a case filed by the Manitoba Métis Federation. The case concerned Canada’s obligations to the Métis people as enshrined in the Manitoba Act of 1870. The court ruled that Canada had failed to properly distribute land grants that were promised to the Manitoba Métis of the Red River Settlement, and that Canada did not act honorably in implementing the constitutional obligation in s. 31 of the Act.

The Manitoba Act, which received royal assent on May 12, 1870, opened the door for Manitoba’s admission into the confederation as Canada’s fifth province. The Act followed negotiations between Canada and representatives of Louis Riel’s provisional government. It provided for Manitoba to become a part of Canada in exchange for which Canada promised to allocate 1.4 million acres of land to the Métis. However, after Manitoba joined the confederation, the promise to the Métis was “ineffectual and inequitable.” The result was that the Métis became a landless Aboriginal people. The Manitoba Métis Federation went to court to advance Métis collective claims.

Following the 2013 Supreme Court decision, the Conservative government under Stephen Harper appointed Vancouver-based lawyer Thomas Isaac in 2015 to provide clarity on Métis rights under Section 35 of the Constitution, which provides protection for Aboriginal rights. On July 21, 2016, Mr. Isaac released his report, “A Matter of National and Constitutional Import,” in which he recommends that the federal government create a framework for negotiating and addressing Métis rights, and that Canada have a ‘nation-to-nation’ relationship with Métis. This article highlights some of the key points in the Isaac Report.

The report states that “Métis peoples hold a central place in the history and development of Canada,” and that the “unique and rich Métis identity and culture … are key components of the origins of Canada.” Despite this history, Mr. Isaac writes, the “Métis have largely been forgotten until recent years in the national narrative as a distinct rights-bearing Aboriginal peoples.”

The report provides clarity on just who is Métis. It points out that simply having mixed European-Indigenous ancestry does not automatically mean Métis. Rather, the test for who is Métis remains as Powley. The Powley Decision (R. v. Powley [2003]) is a Supreme Court ruling on Métis hunting rights as well as criteria for determining who qualifies as Métis.

The report also says that, unlike other Aboriginal peoples, the Métis have nowhere to go when it comes to negotiating their rights and claims. It calls for a review of existing federal laws, policies and services that affect Métis people.

The report makes 17 recommendations, ranging from reviewing Métis’ access to federal programs, such as those that provide health benefits, to establishing a national office to deal with all Métis matters in the country, and long-term, stable funding for Métis organizations. Other recommendations include, that: 

Canada review its existing policies, programs and services dealing with, or available to, Aboriginal peoples, to ensure that Métis peoples, are expressly and distinctly considered. 

The Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) ensure that there is a clearly identified senior office and senior official within INAC to deal exclusively with Métis-related matters with a whole-of-department mandate. 

Canada should work with provinces and territories to develop a joint process by which to address unresolved Métis rights claims and related issues.

Canada conduct a review of its policies and practices associated with the Crown’s duty to consult Aboriginal peoples to ensure that such policies and practices are being fully implemented with respect to Métis in accordance with Canadian law.

Canada change its policy that presently requires Métis to pay to enter the Batoche Historical Site.

Canada develop a discussion document for its engagement with Métis regarding basic principles to initiate a discussion of a Métis rights framework and consider the principles set out in the Report for inclusion in such discussion document.

INAC Minister Carolyn Bennett said in a statement that “Our government is fully committed to working together with the Métis and to moving forward together based on a recognition of rights, co-operation and partnership.”

The Isaac Report titled, A Matter of National and Constitutional Import: Report of the Minister’s Special Representative on Reconciliation with Métis: Section 35 Métis Rights and the Manitoba Metis Federation Decision, is available online at http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1467641790303/1467641835266

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