It takes great strength and courage to admit a wrong. A nation’s refusal to acknowledge the mistakes of its past not only dooms it to repeat them, it holds the nation back from achieving its potential.
Of all the lines in this week’s 144-page Supreme Court decision declaring that the Crown had failed the Métis of Manitoba during Confederation, my favourite has to be: “Canada is a young nation with ancient roots.” This is the very essence of the Canadian spirit. Our nation is indeed young, but our spirit runs deep with certain immutable principles that make Canada great. Upholding the honour of the Crown by reconciling aboriginal rights and interests is one of those immutable principles. On March 8, the Supreme Court upheld that honour by making us accountable for the promises we have made, the shared dreams we have aspired to, and the commitments we have broken, as a nation, with our indigenous peoples.
Canada’s colonial history has been marked by the withholding of aboriginal rights and the denial of our ancient roots. These denials cause us to lose sight of who we are as a nation and stifle the greatness of our shared potential. When actions are taken and decisions are made that correct our systemic denials, our course as individuals and a nation progresses. There are no losers in this decision, for we are all bettered by the provision of strengthened rights and the affirmation of our ancient roots.
In 1870, after rebellion and unrest in the Red River Métis settlements, Manitoba entered Confederation with the signing of the Manitoba Act. The act was negotiated by a Métis-led provisional government and set out a land grant of approximately 1.4-million acres of land in Manitoba, including what is now Winnipeg. The goal of this land transfer was to give Métis children a head start on the Crown’s policy of western expansion and settlement. As a result of “repeated mistakes and inaction that persisted for more than a decade,” according to the ruling, this land was never appropriately distributed in a manner consistent with the honour of the Crown. Instead, the land was distributed inconsistently through a random lottery that saw families separated by great distances and the Métis nation both divided and subverted by settlers.
I remember when Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued his apology for abuses committed at residential schools in 2008, and stated powerfully that, “the government recognizes that the absence of an apology has been an impediment to healing and reconciliation… The Government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the Aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly. We are sorry.” Canadians collectively exhaled. It is this very principle of justice, this imperative of moral integrity and this quest for fairness and that which is right that grounds our young nation.
For over thirty years, the Manitoba Métis have pursued their case through the court system. This was not done to reclaim the City of Winnipeg as their own. Not to demand lands as compensation for over a century of denial by the Crown. The Manitoba Métis have simply sought acknowledgment. They sought justice. As the ruling noted, “the unfinished business of reconciliation of the Métis people with Canadian sovereignty is a matter of national and constitutional import.” With the tethers of injustice now thrown off, the Crown and the Métis are free, at last, to reconcile and build a new relationship based on mutual respect and, most importantly, honour.
The promise made by the Crown in the Manitoba Act affirmed that the Métis people and their descendants would “obtain a lasting place in the new province” as an acknowledgement of their Aboriginal rights and interests, and their significant role in Confederation. In this most important decision, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Crown had failed to act honourably in its obligations to the Métis people of Manitoba over 140 years ago and that the time to reconcile their Aboriginal interests is now.
This is the time to right our historical wrongs, make good on our promises, and renew our shared aspirations for a stronger, greater Canada. The Métis are not the only winners. The Supreme Court has gifted Canada with the opportunity to restore our integrity and reaffirm how important our ancient roots are to our young nation.
The Crown’s lawyers argued that this case ought to have been thrown out because it was more than a century old, but the Supreme Court has soundly reminded us that in the Canada we aspire to, justice has no expiry date.
Melanie Paradis is the Manager of Natural Resources & Aboriginal Affairs with NATIONAL Public Relations and formerly the Director of Lands, Resources & Consultations for the Métis Nation of Ontario.