Canada’s Métis people are rejoicing, but the federal government could be looking at a multibillion-dollar bill to compensate for its wrongdoing more than a century ago.
In a much anticipated ruling Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada said Canada failed to live up to the promises it made to the Métis in the Manitoba Act of 1870 – the agreement negotiated between Louis Riel and Sir John A. Macdonald that ended the Red River Rebellion and opened the West to settlement.
It is a decision that will prompt much celebration among the Métis in Manitoba and many questions of “what now?” in the political offices of Ottawa.
The ruling: Canada failed to keep promises
The Supreme Court has ruled that the Métis were wronged and that Canada didn’t keep promises spelled out in the agreement that brought Manitoba into the federation – promises that were later incorporated into the Constitution.
Specifically, a majority of six justices of the top court said the Crown failed to effectively and equitably provide 1.4 million acres in land grants that were to go to Métis children to give them a “head start” in the new country.
The court determined that Canada did not owe a fiduciary duty to the Métis, as the Métis had argued in presenting their case, but said the implementation of the land grants, which was required as a result of the Manitoba Act of 1870, was rife with delays, errors and inequalities. That was not a matter of occasional negligence, said the court, “but of repeated mistakes and inaction that persisted for more than a decade.”
A government intent on fulfilling its duty “could and should have done better,” said the court, which also dismissed government arguments that the claimants were too late in making their case and that the matter should have been brought before the courts in the 1800s.
“What is at issue is a constitutional grievance going back almost a century and a half,” the court said in the ruling. “So long as the issue remains outstanding, the goal of reconciliation and constitutional harmony recognized in Section 35 of the Charter [of Rights and Freedoms] and underlying Section 31 of the Manitoba Act remains unachieved.”
The reaction: ‘It’s a great day,’ Métis leader says
David Chartrand says he would be a millionaire if he could package his jubilation at the Supreme Court’s decision in favour of the Métis people.
The president of the Manitoba Métis Federation has been fighting for 17 years to right the wrongs he says were committed more than a century ago by the government of Canada. And now the top court has agreed with him.
“It’s a great day for us as Métis people,” Mr. Chartrand told reporters in Ottawa on Friday after the decision was made public. “Righting the wrongs of Canadian history is the responsibility of all Canadians. Canadians from sea to sea to sea will hear our story and acknowledge the unfinished business ...”
Mr. Chartrand said he will return home this weekend with a victory – “our vindication” – that he says will be greeted by massive celebrations by hundreds of Métis.
“I so much believe in our Constitution, I so much believe in our justice system, and to see that our history was put on trial and justice prevailed, I can’t tell you enough how proud I am,” he said, “and what make me more proud than anything is the amount of prayers that I get from our elders everywhere telling me please make it true.”
Greg Rickford, the parliamentary secretary to Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, pointed out that the Conservatives “have a strong presence in our caucus of Métis members.”
Mr. Rickford said the court decision beings some finality to a case that has been in the legal system for many years. But like other members of the government, he would not commit to further negotiations that could lead to compensation.
New Democrat MP Paul Dewar accused the government of dragging its feet in coming to terms with what it must now do. Instead of pushing back in court, Mr. Dewar said, “what has to happen is that they sit down with the Métis and hammer out some form of agreement.”
A ruling 140 years in the making
The story of the Métis people is woven into the tale of Confederation and their fight with the nascent country of Canada marks the beginning of the opening of the West.
In 1869, two years after the Dominion of Canada was formed out of four eastern provinces, the government sent surveyors to the territory of Rupert’s Land that had been purchased from the Hudson’s Bay Company with the intent of opening it up to settlement. The immense parcel surrounded Hudson Bay and included Manitoba.