The Federal Court of Appeal has partially upheld a landmark ruling that could vastly expand the constitutional definition of “Indians.” A ruling last year included Metis and non-status Indians in the definition, but on April 17 the appeals court ruled that only Metis are included as Indians under the constitution and Ottawa must negotiate with Canada’s 350,000 to 400,000 Metis the same way it handles First Nations and Inuit. “Ottawa’s non-recognition for jurisdictional purposes never made sense,” said Metis National Council (MNC) president Clement Chartier. “Logic dictates that it should be Canada’s national government that has a special relationship with the Metis, one of the three Aboriginal peoples in the constitution, and one of Canada’s founding nations.”
If the decision is left to stand, it would vastly expand Ottawa’s responsibilities for hundreds of thousands Aboriginal people in Canada who are not affiliated with specific reserves and have essentially no access to First Nations programs, services, and rights. “We are not the only ones who have been seeking confirmation of primary federal responsibility to deal with us as a distinct people,” added Chartier. “Industry has been seeking it because it wants to collaborate with Metis authorities in filling labour gaps and expediting major energy and resource development projects in western Canada. It wants to work with us in many areas and has been frustrated by Ottawa’s indifference to Metis concerns and priorities. It, like us, wants the federal government to set out rules of engagement in matters such as the duty to consult to facilitate their work rather than leaving them in the dark.”
Local Metis leaders also hope the ruling will bring ammunition to land claim negotiations with governments and the oil industry. “This is a great victory and an historic day for all Metis,” said Ron Quintal, president of the Fort McKay Metis. “We have been here since before confederation, and what the First Nations and the Metis say is not that different. We have lots of parallels, lots of concerns.” Quintal’s community lies north of open pit mines operated by Syncrude and Suncor, and it is surrounded by dozens of land leases held by other oil companies.
Last year, Fort McKay’s Metis and a local First Nation challenged a project near Moose Lake, an area of cultural and historical importance to both groups. The two parties reached an agreement to allow the project to move forward. Quintal’s community also hosts the McKay Metis Group of Companies, which oversees nine companies in the oilsands industry, employs about 4,000 people, and brings in annual revenues up to $100 million. “We are careful to walk a fine balance between concern for the environment and participating in development,” he said. “At the same time, the Metis in Wood Buffalo are struggling to have their rights recognized by governments and industry. This decision adds some political clout to the Metis people to defend our communities.”
In Fort McMurray, McMurray Metis vice-president Bill Loutitt also welcomed the decision. He hopes the ruling will encourage the federal government to create a standardized consultation policy with the Metis, making it easier to negotiate issues related to health care, education, and labour. “Industry has taken a lot more interest in our statements of concerns and have made more agreements with us,” said Loutitt. “Still, a lot of Metis in Wood Buffalo and in Alberta have been pushing for this. We’ve been treated like we have no rights to the land, so this helps our case.”
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt’s office did not respond for comment. If the federal government appeals again, the case could go to the Supreme Court.