When it first appeared among the treeline, some time around the start of the pandemic, the little cabin on Pond Lake represented both a mystery and an affront.
Someone – nobody seemed to know who – had hauled several thousand pounds of steel beams, metal siding and lumber along an overgrown 4x4 trail two hours northeast of Sudbury, Ont., and erected a sturdy 8-metre-by-6-metre structure overlooking the remote lake, complete with surveillance cameras.
Alex Matthias, a Teme-Augama Anishnabai (TAA) elder, happened upon the cabin in the summer of 2020 and couldn’t help but wonder how the builder got permission. He had little inkling the modest building would soon be at the centre of national debate over Indigenous identity and related rights.
Mr. Matthias knew a little something about building on Crown land. When he constructed an off-the-grid home on nearby Lake Obabika in 1992, the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) blasted the access road in two places and repeatedly locked a gate across the route to his build site. He was unperturbed.
“I carried my .32 with me and just shot the lock every time I had to go out or come in,” said Mr. Matthias from his Lake Obabika home, where he’s lived full-time ever since. “They finally got tired and made me a gate key.”
But Mr. Matthias was building on land his ancestors had occupied for 6,000 years, give or take, land called n’Daki Menan (”Our Homeland”) that the TAA had been protecting from logging, mining and other forms of encroachment for decades. He suspected the cabin’s builder could not make the same claim.
After a flurry of letters with the province, the TAA learned the builder had claimed an Aboriginal right to build, not as TAA, but as a member of the Métis Nation of Ontario (MNO), an emerging Indigenous power-broker in a province where Métis history has become highly contested.
“It was a little surprising,” said John Turner, Second Chief of the TAA. “As far as we knew, there were no Métis families around here.”
There was a time when the province would have agreed with Mr. Turner’s assessment. Up until 2003, it actively denied the existence of a Métis community in a prominent court case. Back then, Ontario Métis lacked the well-documented history of their western counterparts. They had no Louis Riel-like historical visionary, no Batoche-like battle. In the words of one judge, the Métis of Ontario were an “invisible entity.”
Since its creation in 1993, the MNO has worked to write the story of this forgotten people. It has convinced judges and politicians of long-standing Métis occupation throughout much of the province, yielding constitutionally protected Aboriginal rights for modern-day descendants. On June 21, the federal government recognized that work with Bill C-53, proposed legislation that would confirm in law the self-governing authority of the MNO.
Neighbouring First Nations – along with the Métis group representing Riel’s Red River homeland – are wary of this growing influence.
If the Crown permits a Métis cabin on First Nations land, they reason, what’s stopping them from green-lighting a Métis-endorsed mine or clear-cut? Especially at a time when Premier Doug Ford wants to expand mineral development in Northern Ontario?
What’s more, they dispute the genealogy used to support the MNO’s claims of 30,000 citizens and seven distinct historical communities.
The MNO’s story, they say, is a work of fiction.
“What happens when identity theft happens to an entire nation?” said Manitoba Métis Federation President David Chartrand. “The MNO, they are stealing the very essence of our nation, bringing in new people and classifying them as the Métis Nation. They are not us. There is no way in hell they can prove it historically.”
But that’s exactly what they’ve done.
It all started with a dead moose.
On the morning of Oct. 22, 1993, the father-and-son duo of Steve and Roddy Powley set out hunting and came home with a constitutional quandary.
They’d shot a bull moose just north of Sault Ste. Marie. But neither of them had the hunting license or tags required by the province. Instead, they scrawled out the time of the kill and their Métis affiliation on a homemade tag and hung it around the moose’s ear. As they were dressing the carcass later that day, two conservation officers pulled up to investigate, eventually charging them for hunting without a license and unlawful possession of the animal.
The Powleys contested the charges in court with the MNO’s political and financial backing. Section 35 of 1982 Constitution Act protected existing Métis rights. Hunting, they argued, was one of those rights.
Aboriginal rights tend to be collective rights anchored in a specific geographic area, not individual rights portable anywhere in the country. To make the case, they had to establish that they belonged to a Métis community in the Sault Ste. Marie area that had been established prior to effective European control in the region around 1850.
The task challenged long-held concepts of Métis history and geography. Most maps show the Métis Nation homeland bounded by the Rockies in the west and the Manitoba-Ontario border in the east, with a small bulge towards Thunder Bay, a good 700 kilometres northwest of Sault Ste. Marie (or 420 km if one cuts straight across Lake Superior). Within those borders, Métis history is the stuff of Canadian legend. In Ontario, it was far more fragmentary. There was no Louis Riel, no 1870 Manitoba Act, which included protections for Métis, and no scrip, the fraud-riddled government scheme of handing out land coupons to individuals who could claim Métis identity.
The Powley team had to write history from scratch.
They started where most Métis histories start, in the 1600s with the famed voyageur highway that snaked from Montreal, across the top of the Great Lakes, and on towards the Great Plains. From the 1640s onwards, French traders formed marriages à la façon du pays (in the manner of the country) with First Nations women. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 brought British control, an influx of Scottish Hudson’s Bay Company employees and another wave of mixed families.
The 1821 Hudson’s Bay Company-North West Company merger led to a diversion of trading traffic to Hudsons Bay shipping routes, leaving overland traders out of work. In the Sault Ste. Marie area, these mixed race families settled down on narrow waterfront lots, engaged in small-time farming and participated in a bustling fishery, according to Powley testimony. They practised endogamy, marriage within the community.
They petitioned the government for land, education and hunting rights. They sang their own songs, wore their own unique style of clothing, devised their own governance. As a result, historians testified, they were no longer people of mixed blood with feet in both European and First Nations worlds; they had undergone ethnogenesis, forming a new ethnicity altogether, the Métis of Ontario.
Their political activity was subdued compared to their western counterparts, which was understandable given Ontario’s open hostility to Métis causes. The premier had placed a bounty on Louis Riel’s head while Toronto provided supplies and troops to put down the 1885 North-West Resistance.
Through the 19th and early 20th centuries, Métis families dispersed, some moving onto reserves, others opting for the Red River area or the U.S. In the Powley case, Ontario contended that this dispersal marked an end to any distinct Métis community, and thus, the extinguishment of any distinct Métis rights. The trial judge adopted a different narrative: that the Métis of Ontario had gone underground to avoid persecution,
He called Ontario’s Métis a “forgotten people” and an “invisible entity,” a view that resonated with contemporary Métis.
“My dad told us when we were young that it was bad enough being French, don’t tell anybody you’re mixed blood,” said Andy Lefebvre, the MNO Captain of the Hunt for the Timmins region. “We had a whole history of being suppressed, picked on, second-class citizens.”
In 2003, the Powleys won at the Supreme court, proving, in the eyes of the law, that a Métis community, and more importantly Métis rights, existed in Sault Ste. Marie.
The Powley decision had created a test for determining Métis rights in a given area. Successful claimants have to demonstrate they belong to a Métis community with deep historical roots. In addition, they have to characterize their right (i.e. hunting moose for food), prove it is integral to their culture and demonstrate how it was infringed, among other things.
The decision brought a deluge of people in Quebec and the Maritimes claiming to be Métis. Between 2006 and 2016, the self-reported Métis population of Nova Scotia surged by 124 per cent. In Quebec, it jumped by 149 per cent. Newly formed Métis groups pointed to the Powley test and some distant Indigenous ancestry to buttress their claims to Section 35 rights, a phenomenon the academics Darryl Leroux and Adam Gaudry have called ”self-indigenization.” The courts have denied dozens of these claims.
The Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF) had supported the Powley defence, but now the decision was seeming like a Pandora’s box. Mr. Chartrand, the MMF president, foresaw an “invasion” of dubious Métis claimants who would demand treaty and then health, optical, dental and family services. These days he says the same of the MNO. “You can see it coming, Ontario in the future will outnumber everyone and demand a bigger share of the resources set aside for Métis.”
In 2021, the MMF cut ties with the Métis National Council, which represents the Métis Nation nationally and internationally, over its inclusion of the 30,000-member MNO. Mr. Chartrand considers many of them self-indigenizers, because they don’t descend from the historic Métis Nation homeland on the prairies.
But is that fair? The provincial and federal governments certainly don’t think so. They view Ontario as one branch on an intricate Métis family tree. Ottawa has signed an agreement and introduced legislation to formally recognize the MNO as a government. In 2017, Queen’s Park worked closely with the MNO on identifying six more history Métis communities covering roughly two-thirds of the province.
“We said to the province we can keep litigating community by community, or work collaboratively to find out where else there were historic Métis communities,” said MNO President Margaret Froh.
It was around this time that a retired Métis aircraft mechanic from River Valley, the closest town to Pond Lake by road, decided to fulfill a lifelong dream of building a hunting cabin. Marc Descoteaux says he grew up singing Métis songs, dancing Métis jigs and telling Métis stories. He has vivid memories of cleaning thousands of smelts, gathering mounds of fiddleheads and fishing for the community.
An MNO citizen based on local bloodlines, he’s also a certified Métis harvester under a program struck between the MNO and Ontario after Powley. The province had already acknowledged his Aboriginal right to hunt and fish in the area. Another court decision, R. v Sundown, had affirmed an Indigenous group’s right to build a cabin to carry out a hunt.
In 2017, he applied to the province and got support from the MNO and MNRF. By 2018, he was building.
“We built it the proper way,” said Mr. Descoteaux. “We followed the directions of the MNRF.”
Ministry spokesman James Tinajero refused to discuss specifics of the cabin but did cite the Sundown case. “Ontario respects credibly asserted and established First Nation and Métis Aboriginal rights, recognizing Aboriginal rights may overlap and co-exist, and acknowledging that there is no hierarchy of Aboriginal rights identified in the Constitution or in the decisions of the courts,” he said in an e-mail.
But Métis claims within n’Daki Menan are neither established, nor credibly asserted, according to TAA lawyer Bruce McIvor. The Powley case established Métis rights in Sault Ste. Marie and provided a test for proving them elsewhere. Within n’Daki Menan, the Powley Test hasn’t been tested. “The TAA have an identifiable territory recognized by neighbours and they have been dealing with this for decades in a most respectful way to ensure they’re inclusive,” said Mr. McIvor, a Manitoba Métis Federation member. “To have someone they don’t recognize come in and claim they are Métis and build a cabin is incredibly insulting for them.”
The MNO’s credibility was already low among local First Nations. In 2019, it published a photo of a TAA ancestor to illustrate a story about Métis history. Mr. Turner, the Second Chief, recognized the image as his great-great grandfather, also named John Turner, flanked by several other ancestors.
“To establish their historical presence in our territory, they are trying to claim my great-great-grandfather as Métis,” said Mr. Turner. “He was no such thing. It’s offensive. It’s identity theft.”
Soon, neighbouring First Nations were making similar accusations. The Wabun Tribal Council, a group of six northern First Nations, and Robinson Huron Waawiindamaagewin, an alliance of 21 First Nation signatories to the Robinson-Huron Treaty, commissioned academic reviews of the genealogy that the MNO used to support its research on the historic communities. They concluded that many of the individuals cited as Métis ancestors were actually European or First Nation.
The Wabun Tribal Counci has since applied for a judicial review of the self-government agreement. Algonquins in Ontario, meanwhile, have sued the MNO and the government of Ontario alleging that the historical community agreement will allow Métis to encroach on Algonquin lands and rights. In mid-June, First Nations leaders held a protest and press conference in Ottawa to make their case.
“Our nations remain strong in the position that there were no Métis nations in our territory,” said Scott McLeod, chief of Nipissing First Nation, a member of Robinson Huron Waawiindamaagewin. “We have no issues with the Métis people. But I think it’s ambiguous as to who those people are. It seems like the federal and provincial governments have basically opened the door to them with very loose criteria.”
MNO President Margaret Froh was in-house counsel for the MNO before becoming president in 2016 and argues against these accusations with the precision of a seasoned litigator.
“We looked at the historic record, we looked at the Powley test, we applied the test and we came to a common understanding with the province of Ontario,” she said.
She characterizes the attacks as Métis denialism and points to several past agreements struck with First Nations groups that now claim no knowledge of Métis habitation in the province. The proposed self-government legislation, she said, is solely about internal processes: citizenship, elections, internal financial management and child protection – nothing to do with land.
As for using First Nations family lines to establish those communities, Ms. Froh said it should be no surprise that Métis and First Nations people share some common ancestors. The MNO has worked to identify any potential self-indigenizers in its midst, recently voting to purge some 5,400 citizens from its registry for lacking adequate documentation.
And that cabin? Since its construction, the MNO has placed a moratorium on similar builds until it can establish a solid review and oversight process, but it stands by its initial support. “To be very clear, a Métis harvesting right is not less than a First Nation harvesting right,” Ms. Froh said.
On a recent spring day, Mr. Turner bumped his Ram pickup along the Pond Lake back road with two passengers. The cabin was still under construction and he wanted to check on progress. Not much had changed since his previous visit, last year. The cabin remained in a state of near-completion, the MNO had yet to respond to correspondence on the matter, and the Province had declined to revoke its approval, opting instead to refer Mr. Turner and the TAA’s lawyer to an MNO webpage of reports and records intended to buttress claims of historic Métis occupation in the region.
Mr. Turner isn’t one to trust such documents. Government recordkeeping in the area was inconsistent, he says. The John Turner from the archival photo, for instance, is listed as English and English breed (a dated term for someone of Indigenous and English heritage) in various historical censuses. His descendants and their families are listed as English, English Breed, Algonquin and Ojibwe. In 1916, one of the elder John Turner’s grandsons enlisted in the army as a 19-year-old “full-blooded Indian.”
Around the same time, an Indian Agent arbitrarily removed countless names from the Indigenous registry for the region, including members of the Turner family, he said.
The Crown’s capricious obsession with classifying and reclassifying Indigenous people left the Teme-Augama Anishnabai fractured. Many became non-status Indians, Indigenous peoples who are not registered with the federal government. Many of these people were referred to colloquially as Métis (some scholars prefer the lower case “métis” when using this more expansive definition) not because of their cultural leanings, but because they were Indigenous people without bands or reserves, colonial castoffs just like the Métis.
In the 1970s, the TAA began to mend the broken branches of its family tree by compiling a new citizen list that largely ignored government definitions. It brought the non-status Indians into the TAA fold by effectively naturalizing any Indigenous person with ties to n’Daki Menan into the TAA. “If you’re Indigenous with rights on n’Daki Menan, you’re Teme-Augama Anishnabai,” Mr. Turner said. “Not Métis.”
Mr. Descoteaux has lived in and around n’Daki Menan all his life. He would never claim to be TAA, but does consider them part of a bigger family. He wants to use the cabin for hunting, fishing and teaching kids of all backgrounds, TAA and Métis, how to feed themselves off the land. “Families look out for families,” he said.
Mr. Turner isn’t sure where the family dispute will end. Some have suggested buying the cabin. Others want to knock it down. “I don’t want to come down on Métis or anything like that,” he said. “They’re our cousins for Pete’s sake.”
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