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A Métis Nation flag flies in Ottawa on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. Three Métis groups signed a deal Friday with the federal government that recognizes them as Indigenous governments, putting them on equal constitutional standing with First Nations and opening the door to further negotiations such as compensation for land lost.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The federal government has introduced legislation that would grant self-governing status to three provincial Métis groups, over objections from First Nations.

Bill C-53, recognizes the Métis Nation of Ontario (MNO), Métis Nation of Alberta (MNA) and Métis Nation–Saskatchewan as governments representing Métis in their respective provinces. It would enshrine federal agreements struck with the three bodies in February acknowledging law-making authority in core governance areas, such as citizenship, leadership selection and administration.

Under Section 35 of the 1982 Constitution Act, Métis have been enshrined as one of the three Indigenous groups in Canada, but they are not subject to the Indian Act and have historically lacked the governance powers of First Nations.

For decades, federal and provincial governments have been able to dismiss Métis organizations as mere not-for-profit associations with no binding powers. Self-government recognition from Ottawa fundamentally alters that legal status, giving them law-making authority and the power to negotiate with other governments.

“For more than 200 years, the Crown’s approach to our assertions was to deny and ignore them,” said MNO President Margaret Froh. “When the Crown did make bargains with our ancestors, those promises were quickly broken. But we never relented because the Métis are an incredibly resilient people.”

The wording of Bill C-53 paves the way for treaty negotiations with Ottawa.

Métis leaders in the three provinces hailed the bill as a key milestone in the battle for Métis recognition that stretches back to the era of Louis Riel.

“All my life, I’ve heard about Riel’s vision and the dreams of generations of Métis to have our inherent right of self-government recognized by Canada,” said Audrey Poitras, President of the MNA. “Riel taught us to never give up. And now look where we are.”

While the Métis have a long and well-documented history in Alberta and Saskatchewan, their presence in Ontario has been controversial in recent years.

Earlier this week, Ontario First Nations leaders held a protest and press conference in Ottawa asking the government to delay the legislation. They argued that the MNO’s citizenship numbers are skewed and denied the existence of historic Métis communities in their traditional territories.

The leaders cited two recent academic reports commissioned by First Nations that allege the MNO has recast First Nations ancestors as Métis to prove historical Métis occupation throughout the province.

Any government recognition built on those shaky foundations should be halted and reviewed with First Nations consultation, they said.

“The communities represented by the MNO did not exist historically and cannot be Section 35 rights holders,” said Nipissing First Nation Chief Scott McLeod at a news conference on Monday. “Recognition of unfounded claims undermines legitimate rights holders.”

The Assembly of First Nations has lent its support, declaring that Canada failed to consult with First Nations in the development of the legislation.

In response, the MNO points to the Supreme Court’s 2003 Powley decision, which established that a historic Métis community existed in the Sault Ste. Marie area. Since then, the MNO has persuaded Queen’s Park that six other historic Métis communities existed covering roughly two-thirds of the province. Proving the presence of these historical communities is necessary for establishing that a contemporary Métis community is entitled to Section 35 aboriginal rights.

The proposed legislation only deals with core governance functions and would in no way affect the rights of other Indigenous peoples, said the MNO in a press release.

The organization has acknowledged that many of its members lack adequate Métis documentation and held a plebiscite earlier this year to purge some 5,400 names from its registry.

The federal government has struck 25 self-government agreements encompassing 43 Indigenous communities, according to the Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs website.

“This bill is a critical step forward in our collaborative work with Métis Nation of Ontario, Métis Nation–Saskatchewan and the Métis Nation of Alberta, to support and recognize their inherent right to self-government,” said Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller.

“These self-government agreements set the foundation for renewed relationships between Canada and each of these Métis governments,” he said. “ … and will create new opportunities to build a brighter future for their citizens, however they see fit.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly included a photograph of a member of the Métis nation of Greater Victoria. In fact, the Métis nation of Greater Victoria is not among the three distinct provincial Métis groups recognized in Bill C-53. The photograph in this version of the article has been updated.

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