There are few issues as contentious as defining who belongs to a people, and that's certainly true for Canada's Métis.
The federal government found that out the hard way this week when its contract aimed at developing a strategy to verify who is and who isn't Métis resulted in a public outcry.
The Métis National Council said it was assured Thursday by John Duncan, federal Minister of Indian Affairs and interlocutor for Métis and non-status Indians, that the government will revisit a preselected advance contract with the Canadian Standards Association to develop a standardized assessment of the quality and integrity of Métis membership systems. Mr. Duncan was not available for comment.
Manitoba Métis Federation president David Chartrand said it's hard to understand why the CSA, an organization best known for consumer safety approvals but which also develops management standards, would be asked to rule on whether Métis membership systems are satisfactory. He said it's surprising that Métis groups weren't consulted about this process.
"We will never let anyone outside our home decide who we are. That's the heart of the Métis nation. You want to have a war with the Métis nation, then go after that," Mr. Chartrand said.
Indian Affairs says it never intended to try to define who is Métis. It simply wants to guarantee a high level of consistency and credibility in the process, according to a spokeswoman. That includes making sure decisions are well documented and that an appeal system is in place, she said.
"What really threatens us is if you look at the [contract] it says verification and standardization. Verification to what, to whom? If you start doing that, aren't you starting to dabble in definition?" Mr. Chartrand said. "Who wants to walk around with a CSA-approved stamp? Pretty soon I'll have a little clip in my ear with an expiry date too."
The issue of identity is particularly controversial with the Métis, who are the descendants of fur-trade marriages of Europeans and natives and who struggled for many years to be recognized by Ottawa.
Today, the Métis definition of belonging is more or less settled among its provincial associations, according to Mr. Chartrand. A person must self-identify as Métis, be able to trace their connection to the Métis homeland (the fur trade areas from Ontario westward), be distinct from other aboriginal groups, and be accepted by other Métis.
But a noteworthy demographic trend has taken hold among the Métis. From 1996 to 2006, their population nearly doubled, increasing at a rate 11 times faster than the rest of the Canadian population. Why?
It wasn't the result of an unlikely baby boom. What happened is that a great many people discovered a previously ignored or unknown Métis ancestry. There are now nearly 400,000 self-identified Métis in Canada, 87 per cent of them living in Ontario and the West.
Clarifying who can rightly identify themselves as Métis became an issue after the 2003 Powley hunting rights case at the Supreme Court, which established the Métis constitutional right to hunt for food. On its website, Indian Affairs states that a number of complex issues arising out of the Powley case are still to be resolved, including that "there is no single, reliable and consistent method in place to identify Métis harvesters across the country."
The issue of belonging may take on added significance after the Supreme Court announced Thursday it will hear an appeal of a major land-claim case which could result in billions of dollars in compensation. The case involves a promise of more than 5,000 square kilometres of land made to Métis families in Manitoba at the time of Manitoba's entry into Confederation in 1870. The Manitoba Métis Federation, which brought the case, has lost in two lower courts. And it's not clear how any settlement that might result would be distributed, or whether individual descendants would receive compensation.