The MMF Master Narrative by Joe Desjarlais

Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF) president David Chartrand recently voiced his disapproval with the report of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples entitled ”The People Who Own Themselves: Recognition of Métis Identity in Canada.” Chartrand quips that the Senate report “misses the mark,” that the time for research into identity has passed and “now is not the time to muddy the waters.”

The Métis National Council and its affiliates including the MMF pretend to represent their people but they have entrenched indoctrinating ideas and policies that limit the indigenous identities of Metis people and communities they purport to represent. As the result, Métis have been fundamentally mis-represented. Chartrand’s efforts to make a big political statement in response to the Senate report fall short.

ChartrandChartrand takes the opportunity early on in his statement to recount historical events in the 19th century to support his political vision for a singular nationhood. He then links his stories to their own contemporary political ideas and policies concerning identification. In his own words, “It is this unique history and identity that shapes the membership or citizenship criteria of the Métis Nation today based on self-identification, historic Métis Nation ancestry, and acceptance by the historic Métis Nation community.”

Stories function as mechanisms to shape thinking to conform to a very certain way of life. The strategy here is that these stories began to take on a heightened credibility in a bid to foster identity cohesion and social purpose. Chartrand recounts the past in a way that places Métis people and communities into his master narrative.

In his statement, Chartrand trumpets the merits of their fulfilling the 2003 Supreme court ruling “Powley Test” with “objectively verifiable membership criteria.” However, the Powley Test is as difficult to satisfy as it is to apply, forcing Métis communities to opt for Indian status and inducing many individual Métis to bring rights cases before the court in places like New Brunswick, Ontario and Alberta, BC, all with varying degrees of success. Even though the ruling could just as easily have led to an exploration of many ways of being Métis through a shared sense of belonging, Powley has become less about establishing Métis collective rights and more about refining processes for establishing which individuals can exercise these rights.

Chartrand glowingly refers to the MMF (Manitoba Métis Federation) Case (Manitoba Métis Lands Case) as example that they “clearly defined the Metis people and nation in historical and contemporary terms.” In his words, “with the declaration of the Supreme Court of Canada on March 8, 2013 that the federal government failed to implement the Métis land rights section of the Manitoba Act 1870 in accordance with the honor of the Crown, the MMF, as plaintiff in that 32 year struggle in the courts, clearly defined the Métis people and nation in historical and contemporary terms.”

However, in the absence of the MMF proving the Red River Métis held a collective interest in the land, the Supreme court ruled that the Federal government has no ‘fiduciary’ responsibility to Métis collective/nationhood. What the MMF ‘won’ was the recognition that the Crown owed a duty of diligence in administering Section 31 and was therefore bound to uphold the rights of individual Métis because of the ‘honour of the Crown.’

The importance of MMF v Canada for Métis identity, especially the application of the ‘honour of the Crown’, has yet to be realized. By not arguing for and establishing the validity of a ‘pre-existing’ Métis sovereignty, the MMF provided the courts with a limited remedy for Métis peoples in this case. It could very well be that Métis people covered by s31 and s32 of the Manitoba Act are well compensated but ‘homeless’ rights-bearing citizens of Canada. In this sense, Métis legal identity originates from an individual’s ability to access the rights of a disadvantaged ethnic group rather than the Aboriginal right to self-determination and self-government.

Chartrand dismisses the idea of open ended research in his statement. In its place, he suggests that the Senate Committee should be “pressing AANDC” (the Federal government) for funding to complete their registries. His rationale is that stakeholders will have access to a database that will furnish “reliable statistical information.” In his words, “we are working toward the completion of our individual registries and are also working with the Canadian Standards Association on common standards to ensure a harmonized system.”

Recall, however, that in 2011, the Federal government tasked the Canadian Standards Association, an extra-governmental organization known for its standardized approach to product safety, with the work of defining Métis identity based upon membership rules established by organizations that represent Métis peoples. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the government was attempting to ‘brand’ Métis peoples. The MNC protested and subsequently agreed to produce their own standardized membership.

A Metis Accord at the Federal level recently signed off by Métis National Council President Chartier and his affiliate leaders is basically a ‘block funding’ agreement in exchange for MNC’s agreement to restrict its membership. It appears the price for ‘block funding’ is an ‘Objectively Verifiable Membership.’ While the Indian Act put the onus on the state (Canada) to define ‘Indian’ as a policy of assimilation, under this pact Metis themselves are tasked with limiting their identity … they are seemingly willing partners in their own marginalization.

Chartrand’s master narrative of a limited and static Metis identity is fragmenting. The MMF and their affiliates are mired in status-quo representations about the people and communities they claim to represent. Step back from Chartrand’s identity politics and a different story comes onto focus. The recent recognition of the Métis position in Canada can be understood as an anti-colonial movement that gained momentum in the post-World War Two period, gathered speed with the inclusion of Métis peoples in the Constitution Act, 1982 and found specific expression in the Powley and Daniels Cases.

The resurgence of distinct historical Métis communities from Labrador to British Columbia and the heightened awareness of Canada’s colonial history as a result of social movements like Idle No More, make it unlikely that current restricted relational models will hold or remain valid. It is worth repeating in conclusion that the biggest challenge for Métis peoples will be to construct a positive representation of their communities while remaining fully aware of the systemic discrimination in Canadian society and the Federal Governments’ past and present assimilationist policies.

Joe Desjarlais

[ilink url=”” style=”download”]Download the PDF The MMF Master Narrative July 5th, 2013[/ilink]

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