Court ruling forces Ontario government back to table with Metis

By Lloyd Dolha

With the recent court decision upholding the Metis Nation of Ontario’s (MNO) harvesting agreement reached with the province of Ontario in 2004, the province has announced that it will not appeal the court decision and will renew negotiations with the Ontario Metis regarding their recently recognized harvesting rights.

Ontario Minister of Natural Resources David Ramsay and MNO president Tony Belcourt renewed that commitment on Friday July 13th in Thunder Bay at the MNO’s annual general assembly.

“Ontario is committed to respecting Metis food harvesting rights,” said MNR Minister Ramsay. “We look forward to undertaking renewed discussions with the Metis Nation of Ontario.”

“MNO is prepared to work with MNR in a spirit of cooperation,” said MNO president Belcourt. “We have always been committed to conservation and to a working relationship with the Ontario Government.”

A recent Ontario Court of Justice decision stayed charges against three Metis men who held valid MNO harvesting cards pursuant to interim July 7, 2004 agreement between the two parties in light of the landmark 2003 Powley decision by the Supreme Court of Canada which confirmed the Metis as a rights-bearing aboriginal people in Canada.

On June 21st, the Ontario government announced it would not appeal the decision of Justice Greg Rodgers of June 12th, to stay the charges against Marc Laurin, Rodger Lemieus and Shaun Lemieux. The three were charged with illegal fishing in their traditional harvesting territory south of Sudbury – an important point.

Following the original July 7th, 2004 Metis harvesting agreement (or Interim Enforcement Policy), the Ontario government began to insist that the agreement was not “legally enforceable.” Eventually, Ontario stated that it would not implement the agreement south and east of Sudbury and new charges were laid against Metis harvesters. As of June 2007, twenty-five MNO members bearing harvesting cards were charged.

In recognizing the legitimacy of the July 7th, 2004 Interim Enforcement Policy, the judge noted that the objective of the enforcement policy was to “minimize the number of instances where aboriginal people are in conflict with the government of Ontario.”

While the Ontario government took the position that it would not recognize MNO communities south and east of Sudbury, the MNO argued that the 2004 agreement had no geographic limitations.

Justice Rodgers agreed with the Ontario Metis and found that:
“… the government was prepared in the short term to accept the legitimacy of the Harvester Card system and the MNO citizen registry … By accepting the legitimacy of the Harvester Card system, I find the ministry also agreed implicitly to accept on a without prejudice basis the territorial designation on each card.
“There is no reference anywhere in the July 7, 2004 Agreement to geographical limits apart from the harvesting being restricted to traditional territories.”
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According to a summary prepared by Metis rights lawyer Jean Teillet, the 2004 agreement was never intended to be a final agreement. It was only intended to facilitate further research and discussion toward and eventual final agreement. Thus, the parties agreement to rely on the MNO Harvester Card system in the interim is highly significant.

Article 1 of the 2004 agreement states that MNO will only issue 1250 cards n 2004. It further states that the parties would develop a mutually agreeable process to change the number of cards.

The judge noted that this was MNR’s agreement to potentially increase the number of cards. He further noted that MNR’s agreement, when combined with its knowledge that over 50 per cent of the cards were for areas south and east of Sudbury was “a strong indicator that the Minister in good faith was prepared to stand down on this issue in the short term and accept the territorial authorization that the Harvester Card System provided.”

To then insist that the agreement could not be implemented south and east of Sudbury, in light of this awareness, was certain to increase the number of instances where aboriginal people are in conflict with the province, which was “exactly the opposite objective of the Interim Enforcement Policy.”

“This is major step in the Metis hunt for justice,” said MNO president Belcourt. “It means our people, in all of our traditional harvesting territories in Ontario, can hunt and fish for food or ceremonial purposes without the specter of being charged by conservation officers … for exercising their rights.”

MNO chair Gary Lipinski said “Now we can look forward to entering a new era with the government of Ontario. Now that the MNO-MNR Harvesting Agreement is being fully honoured, we need to get back to the negotiation table to undertake our mutual obligations.”