Métis Identity and the Harry Daniels Case
The debate about Métis identity is heating up. As is the discussion on who represents Métis people, both those within the “Métis homeland” as well as the many, many Métis from other parts of Turtle Island. In fact, the president of the Métis National Council, Clem Chartier, asks an interesting question in his most recent newsletter; “This gets us back to the Canadian Métis Federation and similar groups. What right do they have to purport to speak on behalf of the established Métis people and nation who have their own representative political bodies and governments, well established over many generations?”(1)
I would argue that the same can be asked of him –
What right does the MNC have to purport to speak on my behalf? As a Métis person, with deep roots in the Red River area and Batoche, did I ever have the opportunity to vote for – or against – Clem or the MNC? How many votes actually are required to keep him in his seat? What are the alternatives that I would have – as a Métis that actually meets their restricted definition – if I don’t think they’re representing me?
Further to that, how does the MNC represent Métis outside of Red River? Métis people in the north, eastern Canada, Quebec, the Maritimes? Métis people whose communities and families have been in place for generations?
Which brings us to the topic of Métis identity. This has been hotly debated for some time, growing even more intense over recent years. The MNC continues to push forward a more restrictive definition that has resulted in many card-carrying Métis citizens, particularly in Ontario, losing their rights and recognition because their family lines trace back to Quebec or the Maritimes instead of the west – it is clear that this “national council” does not consider the Métis from these areas to be “legitimate citizens of the Métis Nation”.
To this end, Clem quotes a number of court cases in this most recent newsletter, primarily the Powley case. As a lawyer, he is obviously well informed of these cases and presents them as the basis for his position. But I have to ask – do we as Métis people want the definition of who we are, who are families are, what our history is, to be dictated by a handful of lawyers and a couple court cases? Even when historic research clearly indicates a much broader view of what defines Métis.
At this point I think we can best bring clarity to this scenario by revisiting a letter that Harry Daniels himself sent to Kirby Lethbridge, president of the Labrador Métis Association, dated Feb. 17, 1994, concerning the application of section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 to Métis people who are not part of the Métis Nation.
In response to your question “What did the term “Metis” mean when inserted into the Constitution of Canada?” I am providing the following for your information. Firstly, let me state that at the time I was President of the Native Council of Canada which was a Federation of Metis and Non-Status Indian Organizations representing Metis and Non-Status Indians from the Yukon to Newfoundland. As the President, I was responsible for negotiating constitutional change on behalf of the constituents of the Native Council of Canada.
On the 30th of January, 1981 when the agreement was reached that Indians, Inuit and Metis be specifically identified as Aboriginal People, in what is now Section 35(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982, it was at my insistence that the above-mentioned were included.
With specific reference to the term “Metis” it was understood at the time that it (Metis) included the member organizations and their constituents who self-identified as a Metis person. The notion being that self-identity is a right that cannot be usurped by any means. It was also understood that the term Metis was not tied to any particular geographic area,keeping in mind that Aboriginal people from coast to coast identified with the term Metis as their way of relating to the world.
The then Minister of Justice and now Prime Minister of Canada, the Rt. Hon. Jean Chrétien made the final deal and I distinctly remember stating that all our people were included whether they identified as Metis or the erroneous term Non-Status Indians. At that time we held a more accommodating view of what a Metis person was and is, contrary to the views of revisionist historians and lawyers who were not involved in the process.
In my view, the people of Labrador who identify as Metis are expressing their right to self-identify as an Aboriginal person and are included in the people who I negotiated into the Constitution in 1981, and should enjoy all the rights that inhere in them as Aboriginal people. (2)
The founders and members of the Métis Federation strongly believe in what Harry Daniels clearly stated in this letter – to maintain an accommodating and inclusionary approach towards all Métis in Canada.
Continuing with their policy of exclusion, the MNC has a very different view, which will result in many Métis not being able to self-identify, not being recognized – as Clem states – as “legitimate Métis” – and therefore not getting the representation or rights that they deserve. Mr. Chartier goes further, stating that it would be unfortunate if we were to get the ear of the Supreme Court of Canada in this historic case. Apparently having another voice at the table, one that is prepared and willing to represent all Métis people is now more than a “distraction” to the MNC.
What is particularly concerning about the MNC stance is clear in the final paragraph of Clem’s article:
Furthermore, the historic Métis Nation represented by the Métis National Council must consolidate its political and governmental mandate, through the adoption of a Constitution and complementary federal legislation recognizing Métis Nation government, and its Métis Nation registry for legitimate citizens of the Métis Nation.(1)
I urge you to read these words carefully and ask yourself – does the MNC represent you and your family, your community? Should there be federal legislation recognizing them as the only governing representative of Métis people? Who decides who is a legitimate citizen? And finally, should the organization that purportedly represents the Métis in Canada be one that continues to promote a policy of exclusion?
As president of the Métis Federation of Canada, it is for these reasons and more that I believe it is absolutely critical for the MFC to be at the table for the Harry Daniels Federal court of Appeal. We certainly did not seek out a court case, and our goal is not to be a distraction, nor is it for political expediency. Our objective is simple – to ensure that the voices of all Métis – regardless of where you or your family is from – are represented in this case. As a relatively newly founded group this is a very lofty endeavor, but we recognize the importance of being present at this point in our history.
It’s also likely the debates on Métis identity will continue. This is an important topic as is recognition and representation – very personal topics that deserve careful consideration. But aside from understanding and respecting our collective – and diverse – Métis histories, it’s also time to look forward. Métis people aren’t stuck in a time warp and we’re not simply a leaf on a genealogical tree, we’re living in the here and now and need leaders who are not only appreciative of our rich heritage, but are looking to the future in a way that is inclusive and respectful, recognizing our ties to the land, the depth and diversity of our culture, and will stand firm for our rightful place in Canadian society.
Now is also the time for Métis people who feel similarly to stand up and be counted. The MFC needs your support – your vocal support, your financial support and your membership. We are a grassroots group run completely by volunteers, so the only way that we can proceed with representing and uniting all Métis – from coast to coast to coast – is when Métis individuals and communities choose to get informed and involved. Over the past year we’ve signed treaties with seven communities and grown our membership significantly in all regions of Canada. Join an organization that is inclusive and forward thinking. I’d be happy to speak with anyone who is interested in joining us, has questions regarding the MFC, or would just like to discuss these important topics.
Robert Pilon, President Métis Federation of Canada
[ilink url=”http://bcmetis.com/wp-content/uploads/Presidents-Msge.Metis-Identity.Feb2015.Final-Version.pdf” style=”download”]Click here to download the PDF version of the MFC’s Presidents Statement[/ilink]