In the wake of a Métis rights case 15 years in the making being vindicated by Canada’s highest appeals court, the president of the Métis National Council has called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to immediately enter “government to government talks” with descendants of mixed indigenous and European ancestry.
On Wednesday April 16, the federal court of appeals rejected an appeal by the Conservative government seeking to overturn last year’s landmark decision in the 1999 “Daniels case,” which sought to allow Métis people and those who are not enrolled as members of specific First Nations to be given status under the Indian Act. Just over a year ago, the original court declared that, under the country’s 1867 constitution, Ottawa must take responsibility for the Métis and thus has an obligation to extend the same social services and legal status as it does for Inuit people and First Nations.
The appeal decision was immediately applauded by the Métis National Council, whose president announced he would write Harper to request top-level meetings to formally negotiate the relationship between his people and Ottawa. First Nations chiefs as well as Inuit leaders have had similar meetings with federal officials.
“Ottawa’s non-recognition of Métis for jurisdiction purposes never made sense,” said Clément Chartier, in an April 17 statement. “Logic dictates that it should be Canada’s national government that has a special relationship with the Métis, one of the three Aboriginal peoples in the Constitution and one of Canada’s founding nations.”
He added that the Métis had “always believed” Ottawa bore ultimate responsibility on their issues and concerns, but had failed to “show leadership.” Last year’s decision—and the most recent appeal rejection—“buttresses this belief,” Chartier said, adding, “The federal government can no longer shrug its shoulders and assume that Métis matters will be dealt with by others.”
There are at least 450,000 Métis across Canada, and according to the ruling by Justice Eleanor Dawson, they were always meant to be “included as ‘Indians’ ” under the section of the Constitution laying out federal versus provincial authority. Fellow Supreme Court judges Johanne Trudel and Marc Noel agreed.
The 147-year-old constitution declares that “the exclusive Legislative Authority of the Parliament of Canada extends to … Indians, and Lands reserved for the Indians.”
But the matter before the courts in this case, however, was whether the Métis fell under that particular definition of “Indians” when it comes to federal authority. Dawson cited another key section of the constitution, which lists Métis alongside Indians and Inuit as “aboriginal peoples,” but agreed with last year’s ruling that the intentions were always to include Métis as Indians in divvying up powers.
The landmark case was launched in 1999 by Harry Daniels, the Métis leader of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, which represents non-status and off-reserve aboriginals, and by Ontario resident Leah Gardner, a non-status indigenous woman.
“Obviously today is a very good day because it begins to put to an end to the jurisdictional football game that has gone on for far too long between the federal government and provinces,” said National Chief Betty Ann Lavallée in a statement. “So far, we estimate that over $9 million has been spent to fight this case … We have fought this case for over 15 years now, and we are committed and confident in our belief that fighting for the forgotten peoples of Canada is a just cause in order to address the wrongs of the past.”
Now, Chartier hopes to see an end to what he calls the “political/policy wrangling” between Ottawa and the provinces, which has “produced a large population of collaterally damaged Métis. As a result they are deprived of programs, services and intangible benefits” and have faced high levels of ongoing discrimination, he said.
Dawsons’s decision also set aside the matter of aboriginal people who don’t have formal legal status as Indians, the majority of them living off-reserve and in urban centers. The court ruled that their concerns were distinct from those of the Métis and would therefore need to be addressed separately as well.
The aboriginal affairs department is considering its option to appeal the latest decision at the higher Supreme Court of Canada, but no such announcement has yet been made, according to the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN).