A “Just” Federation by Joe Desjarlais

A paradigm shift occurs when a viewpoint proves to be bankrupt. The idea of Métis as a modern ethnic ‘rights bearing’ aboriginal people subordinate and subject to Canadian governments has been at the centre of polarizing culture wars for some 30 years. This colonial identity is proving indefensible, however, as Metis and Canadians alike begin to revisit the historical precedent of mutually recognizing each other in what academic James Tully terms a “Just federation.” The ‘justness’ of Canada as a self governing federation, according to Tully, actually rests on its recognition by the aboriginal peoples, not the other way around.i

Concerning Métis, the idea of an evolving Treaty federation in Canada based upon mutual recognition is coming back into national focus. A ‘just’ federation , according to Tully, means that aboriginal peoples and non- aboriginal peoples mutually recognize and relate to each other as equal, coexisting and self governing nations, bound together by treaty relations and cultural respect which rest on the consent of those governed by them.ii

As I write this however, Metis people still live in a country where its dominant institutions favour a national identity that forces their cultural ways on Metis people, often by Métis themselves. The colonial Canada we are all engrained in was born out of a privileged idea of Confederation that discounted or dismissed historic assertions of Metis equality. Canadian identity, then, is skewed in favor of a non-Indigenous identity, maintained by unjust “homeland” structures that Metis themselves paradoxically have helped foster in more recent times.

Canadian governments have often manipulated Metis identities for its own reasons. In 1982, with the inclusion of the term Métis into the Constitution of Canada, the colonial relationship assumed its modern political manifestation. To fill the resultant definitional vacuum created, governments began to support and fund a governing body, the Metis National Council, to apparently lay the foundation for the regime of a subordinate ‘rights bearing’ Metis.

Metis ideologues, without the consent of their own people, began to limit Metis within an entity that is legitimized only in relation to the traditions of the dominant society and the Canadian state. Therefore, emerging Metis ‘rights based’ discourses was assumed to exist only within the Canadian state and its dominant political and economic narratives. Preoccupied by ‘proving’ who has the proprietary right to money, rights, or other entitlements bestowed by Canada, Métis leaders have chosen to ‘forget’ what it means to assert a historic cultural identity based upon mutual recognition. Author Upton Sinclair perhaps stated it best: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

With the consolidation of state sponsored funding formulas, citizenship acts, ‘chartered’ Metis communities with ‘verifiable’ genealogical pedigrees, and with plans to freeze their views into a pending Constitution recognized by Canada, these leaders began to put in place the foundations of their own modern day subjugation, a new landless ‘reserve’ system for Metis – ethnic enclaves.The recognition of Metis into the Constitution in 1982 has not been without paradox. British colonial rule was removed by the patriation of the Constitution in 1982 as Canadians asserted their right to recognize themselves as a self governing federation outside of colonial handcuffs, but arguably the opposite occurred for Canada’s Metis.

As academic Joe Sawchuk once opined, these Metis organizations, after intensive lobbying to have “Metis” recognized in the constitution, now found themselves in the same position as that of Indians. Sawchuk argued they now must live with the consequences of an overarching classification, one that is no more appropriate for them (in the historic sense) than it is for “Indians.”iii

Metis are beginning once again to assert their historic relationship with Canada as equal partners in Confederation. Metis culture is not singular or overarching, nor is it independent, and isolated. Metis have interdependent and overlapping identities with each other, First Nations and Canadians which counter the abstract ‘homeland’ identity logic. To date, governments have been paralyzed by denial and inaction, acting instead to protect an overarching Metis “homeland” definitional system skewed in their favor.

Sawchuk’s words have also proved correct if we consider BC Metis politics. To date, there has been little government recognition of historical relations. In spite of increased external pressure, governments have displayed a striking public attitude of cultural disrespect for Metis people, which has led to a current outstanding case advanced by the BC Metis Federation to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. There has been little imagination and creativity going
forward. Successive governments pretend to exercise diversity but have afforded undue respect to European Canadian values and forms of government at the expense of Metis cultures.

They ignore the possibility of negotiated partnerships and pick and choose policy directions that suit the maintenance of unbalanced relations. They blindly deny Metis consent and a longstanding movement toward what Tully calls ‘mutually acceptable forms of recognition.’ As one example, The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples report was conducted from 1991-1996, and included Métis in authorship, but then successive governments of all stripe shelved the parts that acknowledge that there are many distinctive Métis communities across Canada that seek to recognize and be recognized.

More recently, governments claim to invest in and recognize ‘authentic aboriginal culture,’ as in recent aboriginal tourism investments, driven by piecemeal factors like ‘consumer demands’. Likewise, they claim to include Metis in big economic projects that purport to satisfy ‘industry demands’. The danger, however, has been that the kind of ongoing intercultural and interdependent dialogue between communities and nations that respects Metis culture enough to allow Metis protocol and ‘choice’ to influence discussions has simply not been occurring in negotiations.

As another example, with the rise of business consultants for aboriginal issues, they have most often been employed to solve a piecemeal technical or administrative problem in isolation from historical or community context. Often, knowledge companies hired by governments and corporations do ‘scientific’ assessments but choose to leave out the most important elements that deal with cultural and societal connections to the land and resources. These elements are often the most problematic when it comes to the possibility of partnerships in industry and development.

In the process, Metis are reduced to a commodity, individual cogs in a business transaction or recruitment strategy legitimized and shaped by other people, usually non-indigenous. Often it’s more subtle, like “we need to acknowledge or assist these Metis people who enter into our institution, our education systems, our political preferences, our economic plans.” Mutual recognition concerning nation-to-nation relationships and the mutual fiduciary obligations of treaty partners are subverted.

Indigenous and non-indigenous institutions are slowly moving to work out what it really means to partner together to cultivate true intercultural dialogue and mutual recognition. A promising example appears to be the development of the Indigenous Rights Centre, described by board member Charlie Sark as a legal advocacy, communications and human rights organization.iv Sark further explains that the IRC is focused on promoting and fully achieving the proper activation, recognition and implementation of the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, and around the world. The Centre’s own website describes its mandate as seeking to develop a body of law “which addresses and removes the remnants of discrimination which colonial law placed on indigenous people and nations…a body of law in which First Nations, Metis, Inuit, and other indigenous peoples may realize access to Justice, both in Canada and internationally.”v

Another prominent Canadian example of a move toward a partnership model is a new group called Canadians for a New Partnership, a coalition of aboriginal and non aboriginal leaders, including prominent people like Paul Martin, Joe Clark, and former Metis politician Tony Belcourt on the board of directors. Their website states, “We will establish and support a broad-based, inclusive, leadership initiative to engage Canadians in dialogue and relationship building aimed at building a new partnership between First Peoples and other Canadians. This initiative holds the promise of better living conditions, education, and economic opportunities for First Peoples, which must be the tangible results of that new partnership.”vi Canadians for a New Partnership describes its approach as a commitment to “basing its work on the nation building principles recommended by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, “mutual recognition, mutual respect, mutual responsibility, and cooperation and sharing”vii

As an international example, I recently read about efforts at the United Nations by Indigenous people who seek to play a key role in and shape the UN’s post -2015 development agenda, negotiating upcoming Sustainable development Goals.

Time will tell whether marginalized Metis people, communities and nations will be able to access or partner with bodies like the IRC or the CFNP to achieve meaningful justice. As for cultivating an inclusive international dialogue, groups like the United Nations will only truly honor the right to self determination when they recognize and develop partnerships with bodies like the BC Metis Federation and their affiliate communities who assert their right to self determine outside of colonial relationships.

Canadian governments of all stripe resist to embrace post-colonial ideas of equality and cultural respect. At the recent Premier’s meeting in Charlottetown as example, governments discriminated against Metis by only including the Metis National Council and affiliates in a recent roundtable discussion consisting of federal ministers and National Aboriginal leaders to address, among other things, the missing and murdered women’s file. The BC Metis Federation, on behalf of their constituent Metis people and communities argues that governments, by denying a “just” federation based upon mutual recognition, and by ignoring outstanding issues of discrimination and lack of consent by all Metis people, violate the conditions of their own legitimacy.viii

For its part, Canada has the means to improve the situation at this pivotal time in Canadian history as Metis communities revitalize. This means Métis peoples and Canada must mutually commit to national dialogue that leads to ongoing negotiations on a nations-to-nation basis to reframe the relations within a framework that recognizes self determination, self government and self sufficiency. This will provide a basis for sharing authority, resources and power, as well as a path toward affirming ongoing mutual recognition in our laws, in the Constitution, and in society. As we progress, different forms of Metis structures will arise based on different traditions, circumstances and needs.

Ghandi once stated, “You must make the injustice visible.” The BC Metis Federation has deepened and broadened the national conversation as treaty partners. Now is the time for all to move toward a “Just” federation.

i James Tully, Public Philosophy in a New Key, Volume 1, 234.
ii Ibid, 235.
iii Joe Sawchuk, Negotiating an Identity: Métis Political Organizations, the Canadian Government, and Competing Concepts of Aboriginality
iv Charlie Sark, Linkedin, ca.linkedin.com/pub/charlie-sark/63/490/829
vIndigenous Rights Centre website: www.indigenousrights.ca/our-mission
vi Canadians for a New partnership website: www.cfnp.ca/mission-and-vision/
vii Ibid, The Story of the CNFP: www.cfnp.ca/the-story-of-the-cfnp/
viii James Tully, Ibid, 236. Reminiscent of Tully’s general comments

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