In the last two weeks, concerned Winnipeggers involved in a non-violent direct action blocking the operation of bulldozing equipment on the Parker Lands site have demanded a moratorium on any further clear cutting of the land until the Manitoba Métis Federation and other Indigenous groups and communities have been consulted.   

Jenna Vandal, a student of Métis heritage, claims the proximity to a former Métis settlement, along with the discovery of cultural artifacts on the territory, justifies such consultation.              

The moral weight of these demands should not be casually dismissed.

A historic March 2013 Supreme Court of Canada ruling found that the federal government had failed in its obligations under Section 32 of the Manitoba Act to provide a 566,660-hectare allotment of land that would "give the Métis children a head start over the expected influx of settlers from the east." 

Some Manitoba Métis dislocated as a result of the federal government's failure to comply with its commitments and unable to make use of the expensive and insufficient land south and west of the city took up residence in the Fort Rouge area in the late 19th and early 20th century.

As David Burley recounts in his 2013 publication Rooster Town: Winnipeg's Lost Metis Suburb: 1900-1960, suburbanization and speculative interest in the area resumed after the Second World War. Ambitious plans to build new housing as well as a shopping centre and a new high school along what is now Grant Avenue left the remaining Métis families with little recourse but to leave the settlement. They were offered a $50-$75 payment to leave voluntarily or they would face eviction.

The removal of Rooster Town residents and the erasure of all traces of Métis habitation there constituted what Burley identifies as a form of municipal colonialism, emblematic of a much broader colonialism.

Based on these historical realities, one might consider that Indigenous representative groups such as the Manitoba Métis Federation should have been properly consulted with regard to the development of the Parker Lands, which are across the CN railway line from the area that was once Rooster Town.

In 2012, the B.C. Court of Appeal ruled that municipalities, unlike federal or provincial levels of government, are not agents of the Crown and therefore are not bound constitutionally by the principle  known as the "duty to consult." 

Janice Barry, an assistant professor of city planning at the University of Manitoba who has spent 10 years studying the interface between land use planning and Indigenous rights, recently pointed to at least one opinion published in York University's Osgoode Hall Law School Digital Commons that questions the B.C. ruling.

Even if the B.C. ruling should survive a future Supreme Court challenge, nothing is stopping the City of Winnipeg from voluntarily embracing a process fulfilling the spirit of the duty to consult. 

Barry mentioned to me that a policy guide in Ontario effectively directs municipalities to consult First Nations regardless of the legal uncertainty around its obligations to do so.

In the 2016 book, Planning for Coexistence? Recognizing Indigenous rights through land-use planning in Canada and Australia, which she co-authored with Libby Porter, Barry recounts an attempt at a high-level, nation-to-nation governing process between the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, Indigenous people of the lands and waters around Burrard Inlet in B.C., and the District of North Vancouver. A co-operation protocol had been established which, in spite of mixed results, did commit both parties to provide written notice of proposed land-use developments potentially affecting each other's Aboriginal and municipal interests.

Mayor Brian Bowman has committed to reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Winnipeg. 

While acknowledging the traditional territory on which public gatherings are situated is a nice start, such gestures can come across as hollow and insincere if city procedures associated with urban development remain fundamentally unaltered. 

Children's rights advocate Cindy Blackstock has said reconciliation means not saying sorry twice.

In the same spirit, I would venture that reconciliation should also mean not having to wait for a final Supreme Court judgment to be dragged kicking and screaming into rethinking how we engage affected Métis and Treaty 1 First Nations in major decisions about land use within Winnipeg. 

Sadly, the Rooster Town Blockade, the name the Parker protesters have given themselves, will not likely succeed in forcing consultations with representative Indigenous groups regarding the land. It is not even clear the Manitoba Métis Federation seeks consultation in this matter.

However, the action by protesters and the media buzz it has generated will hopefully help catalyze an urgent discussion about how we engage our treaty partners and affected Indigenous governments in strategic urban planning and high-level decision-making moving forward. 

For reconciliation's sake, we can and should do better.


Michael Welch is a freelance writer, broadcaster and podcast producer. His email is michaelwelch121@yahoo.ca.