In spite of the vivid life and death of Louis Riel, the concept of the Métis is the least easy to grasp for the non-indigenous majority of Canadians. That is one major reason why the new report of Thomas Isaac, the indigenous affairs' minister's special representative, is valuable.
Most basically, Mr. Isaac can help clarify, for example, to many Canadians that a Métis person is not anyone who is the child of a native and a non-native. Rather, the Métis are a distinct community that took shape largely in Western Canada and have a distinct language, called Michif. Nor are the Métis a small group: the 2011 Census reported 452,000 people.
Though they were essentially swindled out of their lands in the 19th century, they are not as yet demanding vast swaths of the territory of Canada. They seem mostly interested in harvesting and hunting rights, and in monetary assistance with setting up registries to ascertain who is Métis, so as to help their communities to connect with each other and choose leaders.
In Alberta, there are eight Métis settlements with 528,000 hectares of land, the closest so far that they have come to form their own municipal governments. Métis activists are fond of the word "government," but that doesn't necessarily mean governments that have sovereignty over lands with borders.
The Constitution Act, 1982, does make clear that the Métis have particular rights of their own, as do the First Nations and the Inuit. The Supreme Court has also strongly asserted the concept of the honour of the Crown that is due to all the aboriginal peoples in Canada, but which has not yet been adequately upheld.
In material terms, the Métis are on average less well off than most Canadians, but even though they lack reserves or the benefits (and burdens) of the Indian Act, they are better off than the other groups of aboriginal peoples – in health, labour force participation, employment and other indicators of well-being.
Mr. Isaac's report has given Carolyn Bennett, the Minister of Indigenous Affairs, a lucid survey of the Métis. It lays out the issue, but it's light on advice. It's now up to Ottawa to give more specific content to the idea of reconciliation – and reach a settlement that upholds the honour of the Crown.