By Lloyd Dolha
It’s a new era for the Metis people of British Columbia, says Keith Henry, executive director of the newly reborn Metis organization. “Because we’ve moved institutions of government forward.”
At their annual general meeting in late September at Fort St. John, the Metis Provincial Council of British Columbia formally announced the successful implementation of a Metis Nation Governing Assembly, a Metis Nation Senate and the ratification of a Metis Nation Citizenship Act through legislative acts completing its transformative change from a non-profit society to a true provincial Metis Nation governance structure.
“Now we’ve given ourselves institutions to give ourselves legislative law-making powers over the Metis community that can help define what our role is here in BC,” said Mr. Henry.
The Metis reached this transformative change after two years of exhaustive meetings and 59 community consultations throughout the seven regions that comprised the old Metis Provincial Council of BC. Those consultations followed the ratification of a MPCBC constitution in 2003.
Through these governing institutions, the Metis Nation BC will pursue ratification of an Electoral and Natural Resource Act in 2006 as well as other acts pertaining to social sectors such as a Metis Children and Family Act.
The Metis Nation BC is also pursuing strategic connections to clarify their relationship with the province’s First Nations in light of a recent BC provincial court ruling in R v. Willison that upheld a Metis right to hunt in the Thompson/ Okanagan area of the province.
In Willison, the trial judge found that there was a historic Metis community in the “environs of Falkland” that included a geographic area that was part of the historic fur trade Brigade Trail that went from Fort Kamloops, where the North Thompson and the Thompson River confluence, to Fort Okanagan, now in the northwest United States.
Metis fur trade pioneers
This was a historic route of fur traders in the first half of the 19th century and the Metis were the people who transported the furs in the brigade system which flourished for about 40-50 years.
The Metis came to the Thompson/Okanagan in around 1810-1811 and established families in the area. The Metis were “indispensable” members of the fur trade, but by the 1860’s became largely invisible with the demise of the fur trade. They continued as a community in and around Kamloops.
The judge, Justice Stanfield, said it was apparent that the Metis sought each other out and that there purpose in “seeking each other out is to enhance their survival as a distinct community and to practices that were historically important features of Metis communities.”
It included the Falkland area where Mr. Willison was hunting and the trial judge was satisfied that a community of Metis people existed during these years and it was a rights-bearing community.
As in the landmark 2003 Supreme Court of Canada ruling on Metis rights in Powley, the trial judge noted there was evidence of the Metis culture going “underground ” due in part to discrimination.
Stanfield J. further stated that provided persons meet the membership criteria set out in Powley he did not believe it necessary to establish every member of the local Metis community demonstrate a personal ancestral connection to the particular Metis persons who formed the ancestral community in BC.
In Powley, to prove membership an individual must: self-identify as a Metis; have an ancestral connection to an historic Metis community; and, be accepted as a member by this community.
Mr. Willison has that connection and, based on that, Stanfield J. was satisfied that Mr. Willison was a rights-bearing member of the local contemporary Metis community.
While the judgment in Willison applies strictly to the Metis community in the “environs of Falkland,” it can be taken as a precedent for the existence of other contemporary rights-bearing Metis communities in other areas of the province.
BC Metis-rich province
And there are a lot of Metis in British Columbia.
According to the Metis Nation BC, there are more than 44,000 Metis in the seven regions of the province that forms the basis of their governing structures.
In seeking this strategic alliance with First Nations, the Metis Nation BC has developed protocol agreements that respect aboriginal and treaty right while allowing the Metis to advance and develop their community and culture in the province both socially and politically.
“We want First Nations to know we’re partners within the aboriginal community. We’re not here to compete for treaty or territorial rights. We’re here to work with them,” said Mr. Henry.
The Metis Nation BC is currently negotiating protocol agreements with the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council, Treaty 8 Tribal Council and the Nicola Tribal Association. They are also seeking to establish protocol agreements with the First Nations Summit and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.
Henry said that since the Powley decision, many in the BC Metis community believe they have a Metis right to harvest. In light of that, the Metis Nation BC has developed a harvesting management structure and is carrying on academic research to prove the existence of other Metis communities outside of the Thompson/Okanagan area.
“Our approach to this is to try to work with stakeholders such as First Nations, the provincial government and organizations such as the BC Wildlife Federation and say, ‘Here’s what the courts have said in the Powley decision, here’s what we saw in the Willison decision. How can we work together to protect the sustainability of the harvesting resource?” said Henry.
“We want to make sure that the conservation and safety aspects are met with stakeholders like the BC Wildlife Federation and to the provincial government to say ‘Let’s not end up in the courts debating this. Let’s try to figure this out and what it means around BC.'”he said.
Decision court’s first
The Powley decision marked the first time the Supreme Court had addressed and affirmed whether Section 35 of the Canadian constitution protects the aboriginal rights of Metis to hunt for food.
The case confirmed the existence of the Metis as a distinct aboriginal people and the constitutional protection of their existing aboriginal rights.
Since the Powley decision, the federal, provincial and territorial governments, along with Metis organizations and other stakeholders, have held discussions to clarify the long-term implications of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision and work toward a common understanding of the issues involved. Various consultations and initiatives are currently underway, including the Canada-Aboriginal Peoples Roundtable.
The Crown’s appeal of the Willison case is set to take place between December 12 -14, 2005 in Vernon, BC.
At appeal, the court will deal with part 3, the issue of justification.
Was Mr. Willison, as a contemporary rights-bearing Metis person justified in shooting the deer for sustenance purposes in the “environs of Falkland”?
Interim president and Director of Natural Resources for the Thompson/Okanagan region David Hodgson, gave his take on the Willison harvesting rights case.
“It proves the point that the Metis are in the province of British Columbia. We do hunt and fish in the province of British Columbia and we are entitled to the same rights as all aboriginal people.”