Pitfalls and Possibilities of Metis ‘Recognition’

This has been a paradigm shifting year for Metis ‘recognition’ in Canada. Standard narratives are breaking down as British Columbia Metis assert their historic right to determine their collective future.

2013 began with the release of a nationally significant Daniels court decision in January asserting that Metis people are Indians for purposes of the Constitution. The Manitoba land claims ruling soon followed a decision that underscored the need for government action to meaningfully address unresolved historic Metis grievances.

By early summer, a significant Canadian Senate Standing Committee report on Metis identity acknowledged the complexity of being Metis and called for Government action. BC and Federal governments were both named in human rights discrimination cases against Metis people in British Columbia which is still ongoing. Negotiations broke down in the fall with the Province and further action is pending.

To cap off the year in December, a final report last week by a Government appointed Special Federal Representative Doug Eyford was released, trending in the same direction, boldly calling for yet more government action. In Mr. Eyford’s words, “relationships that prosper require a foundation of trust, built on constructive dialogue, understanding interests, and a commitment to find solutions.”

This report arrives amidst urgent industry demands to ship oil to foreign markets in timely fashion, and industry pressure on governments to assert leadership with aboriginal people. The oil industry is projected to invest a massive 364 billion dollars over the next 25 years into the projects. Metis people and communities like other aboriginal peoples also have a voice in the process and have demonstrated leadership and support of First Nations.

To date, the current Liberal government in BC is in utter denial. At the Federal level, it appears that the Federal government has recently responded to the Eyford report by stating their intention to negotiate with the BC Metis Federation. After years of advocating, an alternative organization is entering into negotiations with the Federal government on behalf of Metis people and communities. Federal recognition has no doubt arrived and creates enormous ripple effect across Canada and places direct pressure on Provinces to act. In effect, the legitimacy is shifting toward Metis communities and nations as they gravitate toward more historic norms.

“Recognition” is important and should be celebrated in whatever form it takes. But, as Louis Riel demonstrated with the Manitoba Act in 1870 and its outcome, one can win the battle for ‘recognition’ and lose the war of ‘nationhood’ (self-determination). With the MacDonald Conservative government’s rush in the 19th century to satisfy mercantile demands of the day and it’s National Policy, historic Metis claims to nationhood and self determination were subverted through the bungled Metis scrip policies and the consequences. Metis ways of life were deemed expedient, and Metis were dispossessed from their land by law and policy. The caution here is that once in the legislative loop of ‘rights’, anything can happen, including the disallowance of the very rights which came to define a region/nation.

Mr. Eyford rightfully stated in his report that Metis consultation must be situated as part of broader ongoing reconciliation process in Canada. Along these lines, two important foundational concepts are required if Métis peoples are to reflect their historical and legal place within Canadian society and for Canada to co-exist with Métis nations.

First, any position on Métis community formation must be open to historical difference and appreciate the past, present and future dynamics of being Métis: there are many different ways of ‘being Métis’ in Canada. This means that piecemeal government or industry “recognition” are not the ‘end’ in themselves, but a means to opening up a space within this country for the historical difference of the Métis to be expressed and, eventually, practiced in all of its fullness.

Our vision at the BCMF is to provide organizations (governments, boards, corporations,) with the mental maps (the language) that they can adopt and use to imagine a different kind of relationship with Metis people. By educating Métis peoples and nations, Canadians, industry, governments and other institutions about the nations-to-nation relationships, we may foster inclusion, creative vitality, and patterns for principled relations.

In order to initiate a political, social and cultural movement that honours the self-determination and self-government of Métis nations, in Canada, Métis leaders need to recognize each ‘other’ and develop a shared sense of difference beyond each particular Métis nations’ history. Perhaps the only way to stop the competition for scarce government resources, which is generated out of the current rights-based system, is to initiate a complementary movement to re-educate governments of the nations-to- nation Constitutional arrangements that will guide future relations.

Second, historically unique and diverse and dynamic Métis communities must engage the Canadian state through nation-to-nation agreements. This is not a ‘one time deal’ but ongoing political relationship that is dynamic, a positive thing especially where resource development and environmental concerns are involved. Negotiations must commit NOT to close down future possibilities. What needs to be articulated time and again is that this is an on-going, open-ended and positive formation of Métis nationhood.

Coexistence, then, is not about dividing up the pie, but about meaningful dialogue, mutual learning and sharing so that things like the “pipe line” or other impacts are not about spreading the wealth but about quality of life and the ability of Métis, First Nation’s, Inuit and other Canadians to make meaningful choices that impact their livelihoods and ways of being. For this to happen, we need to release and equip Métis to draw upon their knowledge and provide other Canadians with the language and concepts to understand how this co-existence can become a reality

While rights-based agreements premised upon narrow constitutional arrangements or legislative enactments are beneficial in the short term, they are not an accurate reflection of the historic or legal position of Métis communities. It is impossible to ‘be Métis’ in Canada without honouring the well-entrenched relational principles that recognize self-determined, self-sufficient and self- governing Métis nations. Canada is one of the few countries in the world that has the historical traditions, constitutional precedents and societal awareness to effectively understand the complexity of Métis communities and recognize their unique identity within the nation’s political, economic and social structure.

Due to the expression of Métis pasts and through their own agency, there is a legal and historical heritage within which we can understand and respect our differences as we learn to live ‘side by side, neither one steering the other’s ship.

Canada is thus being invited into a different way of recognizing Metis people. Without this messaging, people will have no other choice but to resort to old ways of thinking. Without a long-term, generational approach to Métis nationhood, individual or institutional stakeholders can lose their bearing easily.

2014 promises to be a breakthrough year. The team of volunteers at the BCMF inspires me with each passing day. I commend all those who have sacrificed time and finances to support the movement.

I also want to thank Dr. Bruce Shelvey for his assistance.

I conclude in this special season of goodwill with these hopeful and powerful words from Louis Owens, scholar and author:

“To be what is called mixed blood is never to rest..a choice there is, in every day and moment. But only because cultures insist upon choice.”

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