Partners in Confederation

This week the BC Métis Federation Secretary Joe Desjarlais responds to current identity politics in Métis – Canadian relations.  We encourage members to review and write your responses on our website or facebook page.

What is your response to recent public power struggles like the recent problems of the Métis group in Saskatchewan?

The situation in Saskatchewan Métis politics is a sad commentary on all that is wrong with government – Métis relations. On a broader scale, I think that Métis people are beginning to fundamentally re-evaluate the recognition politics that dictate Métis organizations and how they are structured. Instead of exercising leadership they run to the courts to deal with their corporate issues. They ignore a history of dispossession and how this process continues through recognition politics.

Métis organizations create identities as ‘regulatory bodies’ of Metis individual rights and compete to be the ‘guarantors’ of membership. They then claim to represent Métis , but the basic flaw here is that these arguments only hold weight if the focus is on getting governments or legal systems to ‘recognize’ individual Metis people as a way of relating.

The justification for Métis ‘unity’ is simply to work with governments, as if that is the meaning of Métis identity, (as defined in opposition to or in concert with government policy.) Recent attempts by the Metis National Council illustrate that registries can be used by Métis organizations to create an exclusive relationship with Canada.

Why did the BC Métis Federation recently choose to discontinue treaty negotiations with the Métis Federation of Canada as the basis for ‘partnering’ to intervene on the Daniels case?

I was mandated by the BCMF to explore the ideas of a treaty as the basis for partnering together to intervene on the upcoming Daniels case. We had a prior agreement signed but the document presented to us by the MFC negotiator had significant additions around the notion of a national registry. Negotiations have been discontinued because of an impasse over the importance of a ‘national registry’ that would regulate Métis identities. In the negotiations and in the responses after the negotiations, we were hearing words like ‘authentic’ or ‘protector’ of Métis identities.

To be blunt, they wanted partnership conditional on imposing a regulatory definitional system through a national registry on other Métis. Despite claims to openness, flowing from this logic, only then would partners ‘belong to history,’ or be able to partake in optimal relationships and conversation about the future of Métis in Canada. There is a built in assumption that without accepting membership with the MFC, Métis people, leaders, communities or nations will be left ‘unprotected’ and ‘unrecognized.’

The challenge Métis ‘partners’ will need to address going forward is that no one has yet to challenge the role that these kind of registries play. For aboriginal peoples, almost always they have been used as forms of subjugation and dispossession. The purpose of scrip documents and other government legislation like the Indian Act of 1876, was to individualize Métis collective identity thereby making it difficult, if not impossible, for Métis to practice their existence as a member of a distinct nation. The real-politik of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Canada replaced Métis collective identity with a genealogical rights-based identity that left little space for cultural negotiation.

How could Metis alternatively approach their relationship with governments?

Governments are partners, not guarantors of Métis existence. In this approach, Métis self determination, (of it`s own kind) sets the parameters for partnerships with government, rather than government policy setting the terms by which Métis can exist in Canada. Being full partners in Confederation means more than just fighting for the scraps that drop from the government`s table. It is empowering Métis communities and nations and ‘homelands’ to realize their full potential as proud and independent peoples.

If Métis organizations cannot structure their own relationships on these principles it is inconceivable that the government would be able to think in terms of mutual recognition. It should be clear from 150 years of interaction that given the opportunity, the government will defer to what it knows best, and that is establishing right’s based communities that have very limited ability to shape their own future. In other words, gaining government recognition should not be the main focus of Métis ways of being and once that impediment is removed a whole new world of possibility opens up, including the mutual recognition of ‘all my relations’ in a broader Métis community.

Are there other approaches on the horizon by national leaders?

I find it significant that Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Perry Bellegarde stated in a recent interview that “we need to build the recognition before we build the structure.” No doubt they have similar decisions to make around issues of identity as they seek better relations than the Indian Act provided among themselves and with others.

The nationally significant pending Daniels case brings Métis communities into conversation with broader legal discussions on the nation-to-nation relationship as defined in the historical treaty process. It appears that national chief Betty Ann Lavallee, of the Congress of Aboriginal peoples is tracking in a similar direction.

In a recent article “Daniels verses Canada: Undoing the damage of the Indian Act,” she correctly identifies the heart of the issue of community as ‘self-determination’ and ‘self government.’ She states that self determination is the single most important goal for aboriginal peoples.

Judging by her comments in their organizational newsletter, Lavallee appears to be searching for ways to re-imagine identities outside of identity politics, differences that are fixed in definitions or categories, or what she terms ‘categorical status’ of ‘racist legislation’.

In response to the question of what is a non status Indian, Lavallee responded, “I believe in the historical nations. We did not decide peoples’ place in the community based on blood quantum or the colour of their skin.” She states that a win for Métis and non- status people in the Daniels case will put the responsibility on Métis and First Nations to develop “fair and transparent ways of identifying their own citizens.”

What has been the Federation’s approach?

Our approach is that it is impossible ‘be Metis’ in Canada without honouring the well entrenched relational principles that recognize self determined, self sufficient and self governing Métis communities, nations and ‘homelands,’ with a unique historical connection to the Crown and First Nations.

Instead of attempting to define Métis in a way that satisfies a government’s rights-based agenda, the Federation has assumed a conciliatory and facilitative role as ‘translator’ between Métis communities and various interests.

Protecting historical difference of Métis communities and nations is the most important challenge and this is best expressed through mutual recognition. Métis are reaching into their cultures and traditions for inspiration and insight in order to articulate the historical differences that make their communities unique. There is much greater power in mutual recognition, both at the community level and at the national level.

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