After 13 years of legal wrangling, the Métis people are poised to take a leap forward Tuesday when a Federal Court judge rules in a fight over jurisdiction.
The court is expected to decide whether the federal government is responsible for negotiating with the Métis on issues ranging from health and education to land claims and tax exemptions.
With an estimated 400,000 Métis in the country, the costs of extending government programs or negotiating claims are potentially enormous.
The federal government is hoping the outcome of the case will sharply restrict its authority. If the court finds that Ottawa does have jurisdiction over the Métis people, the government would be under considerable pressure to negotiate or face an onslaught of litigation.
Métis organizations that brought the case hope the court will firmly establish the fiduciary duty of the federal government to look after their affairs. Should their aim be thwarted, Métis groups would have to try to negotiate their rights with the governments of the provinces where they live.
“It comes down to a question of whose door the Métis go knocking on,” said Jean Teillet, a Vancouver lawyer with expertise in Métis issues. “It’s a classic Canadian dilemma: Are the Métis a federal or a provincial responsibility?”
The question appears straightforward, yet the lack of a clear answer so far has left Métis and non-status Indians in the starting blocks when it comes to negotiating for their future.
Tony Belcourt, founding president of the Native Council of Canada, said that successive governments have tied his people up in litigation.
“The Métis have been political footballs,” Mr. Belcourt said. “I’m not saying this case will be the be-all, end-all, but it is a very important case. A decision in our favour would mean we can pressure the federal government to act, particularly on land claims.”
Since the losing side is virtually certain to appeal, a final showdown is likely to take place in the Supreme Court of Canada three or four years hence.
The Métis people have both Indian and European ancestry. The litigants asked the court to declare that Métis and non-status Indians are considered “Indians” under the 1867 Constitution Act. They also want the court to find that the federal government has a duty to negotiate and consult with them on their rights and needs.
“I don’t know what justification there could be for excluding one whole group of people when the whole reason for having federal responsibility is to take them away from the tyranny of local majorities,” Ms. Teillet remarked.
Joseph Magnet, a University of Ottawa law professor who represents the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples in the case, said the federal government impeded the case with a long series of legal motions.
“Canada stated in open court that it did not want this case to come to trial and that the consequences of it were potentially enormous,” he said. “The court repeatedly criticized Canada for this strategy. Ultimately, the court required Canada to pay punitive costs for wasting time.”
One of the greatest frustrations Métis people face is that both levels of government have actually agreed at past constitutional conferences that Métis and non-status Indians do not receive the services they need in relation to their status as aboriginal people, Prof. Magnet said.
Beyond the monetary issues, he said that the Métis have also been waiting for the cultural benefits of achieving recognition such as an enhanced sense of identity, cultural heritage and belonging.
A moving force behind the litigation, Métis activist Harry Daniels, died in 2004. His wife, Cheryl Storkson, said on Monday that a victory would complete his legacy.
“He fought so hard for the Métis people for all of his life,” Ms. Storkson said in an interview. “If he were here now, he would be waiting for the decision – and he would feel a wonderful sense of victory if the Métis people are able to win it.”
AT A GLANCE
404,000: The number of Métis according to the 2006 Census.
Areas of greatest concentration of Métis in 2006: Alberta (22 per cent), and Ontario (19 per cent), Manitoba (18 per cent), British Columbia (15 per cent) and Saskatchewan (12 per cent).
The Supreme Court outlined three broad factors to identify Métis rights-holders:
- self-identification as a Métis individual;
- ancestral connection to an historic Métis community;
- acceptance by a Métis community.
34 per cent: The Métis account for more than one-third of the overall aboriginal population, up from just one-quarter (26 per cent) in 1996.
$22,395: Average total income for Métis (2001)
$30,060: Average total income for non-Aboriginal population (2001).
Source: Statistics Canada