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Métis compensation talks are a milestone long in the making

David Chartrand, president of Manitoba Métis Federation, says Ottawa must move quickly because the Supreme Court ruling says its obligations exist now.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

This is the summer when the Canadian government will have to start revamping the country's relationship with 400,000 Métis, who have long been caught in an in-between world of jurisdictions. In a long, slow saga that dates to 1870, there's now something like an accelerator.

After decades of court battles, the Canadian government will talk to Métis about compensation for claims to land dating back to the Red River settlement. And Ottawa must also start figuring out how it's going to make good on its court-confirmed duty to provide the Métis with status and benefits similar to those provided to other indigenous people.

One milestone last Friday might have been almost lost because of the mind-numbing bureaucratic banality of the announcement: Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett signed a memorandum of understanding with the Manitoba Métis Federation to start exploratory discussions to reach a framework agreement on reconciliation.

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But it actually is a milestone. This was the federal government agreeing to talk about the basis for a settlement of Métis claims from an 1870 land grant and to hammer out the framework for formal negotiations by September.

That was a long time coming. The Manitoba Métis Federation fought the case for years before the Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that the Canadian government breached the "honour of the Crown" in mishandling the land grants that were supposed to give Métis a "head start" when Manitoba became a province. The then-Conservative government delayed, and then handed that issue off for study to lawyer Tom Isaac. His report is expected to be released within a few weeks – and he's expected to report that Ottawa has a duty to negotiate compensation. But the Liberals had already promised, in last year's election campaign, to negotiate. Last week's MOU started the ball rolling.

For David Chartrand, president of Manitoba Métis Federation, it's a big deal. The case reaches back to 1870, when 85 per cent of the population of what is now Manitoba was Métis, children of European traders and indigenous women, who worried that if they were part of Canada, they would be swamped by eastern settlers. To negotiate the creation of a new province, Ottawa promised to distribute 1.4 million acres to the children of Métis to give them a "head start" in Canada. But the process was riddled with mistakes and 15 years of delays, so some didn't get land for years, or at all. In its 2013 decision, the Supreme Court said the federal government was guilty of "persistent inattention."

The Métis claim is not, as some think, for downtown Winnipeg, or the return of other once-Métis land. It will mean some monetary and other forms of compensation, Mr. Chartrand said. He credits Justin Trudeau with being willing to negotiate. "He made a promise to me before he was Prime Minister, and after," he said. The decision to start talks doesn't mean a settlement is close, but it is an acceleration.

And apart from compensation for the past, the federal government has to come to grips with how it will deal with the duties imposed by another Supreme Court decision, one that requires Ottawa to treat Métis with equal constitutional status as First Nations. The decision orders the end of the jurisdictional never-never land for the Metis, but now it has to be put into practice. And that means Métis have a case for equal treatment.

Mr. Chartrand said he's getting questions about whether Métis will get the same benefits as First Nations in areas such as health and education. "They're asking, do I get free medicine like First Nations? Do I get postsecondary education like First Nations? Well, all that is going to be up for discussion now," he said.

And the government has to figure it out pretty quickly, he said, because the court's decision said the federal government's obligations exist now: "It doesn't say in six months or a year. It's effective immediately. They haven't started because they don't know what to do."

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The timelines are getting shorter. The Métis have long been caught outside the lines for 140 years, as federal and provincial governments fobbed off jurisdiction on each other, and Ottawa considered them outside its jurisdictional purview for "Indians." But this is the summer there's pressure to move on.

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