Infighting between Métis groups is threatening to undermine a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that opened the door to better programs and services for Aboriginal people.
In April, the high court ruled that Métis and non-status Indians are "Indians" under the Constitution and they fall under federal, not provincial, jurisdiction. That means that when it comes to negotiating certain rights, or new programs and services, they should knock on Ottawa's door.
The Daniels vs. Canada ruling had many hoping that some of the country's most disadvantaged people were on the verge of turning a corner, but infighting among Métis groups over which people do, or do not, qualify as Métis — and can therefore have a seat at the government's table to discuss programs and services — is eroding that hope.
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Although the federal government does not decide who can legitimately represent themselves as Métis, some say the way the government has conducted its consultations with various groups is not helping to clear up the issue.
"The government has a lot of power, at least symbolically, to say we're going to sit with these groups, rather than these groups, and then this creates divisions and conflicts," said Sebastien Malette, a professor of law and legal studies at Carleton University and an expert in Aboriginal law.
It is difficult to prevent bogus groups from coming forward and making claims, but not hard to develop a process to weed them out, he added.
In the Daniels ruling, the Supreme Court did not define what it means to qualify as Métis or non-status Indians, saying it would have to be decided on a case by case basis. But there are some generally agreed upon criteria, including ancestry and community ties.
Malette said the federal government needs to clear up the infighting by crafting a process that can test the legitimacy of a group's claim to be Métis while remaining broad enough to accommodate the diversity of the Métis people.
A lot is at stake for those groups seeking a seat at the federal government's table including land claims, the right to self-government, harvesting rights, health, education and cultural programs.
But so far it appears as if only a couple of long-standing groups have met that standard: the Indigenous Peoples Assembly of Canada (formerly the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples) and the Métis National Council. And it is the MNC that seems to be making the most progress in its efforts to get the ear of the government.
Unclear how to obtain legitimate Métis status
The Métis Federation of Canada, however, is a group that was formed three years ago to represent Métis in all parts of the country. Robert Pilon, the MFC's president, said requests for a meeting with the minister of Indigenous affairs have been answered by a meeting with senior officials instead.
Pilon said those officials repeatedly asked about the legitimacy of the Métis Federation, despite it having been an intervener in the Daniels case.
"It didn't amount to very much," said Pilon. "They said you haven't been around long enough even though most people on our board, on average, have been involved in Métis politics anywhere from 15 to 40 years."
Pilon points the finger at the Métis National Council, headed by Clement Chartier, for excluding Métis east of Ontario from what Chartier calls the "Métis Nation." Disillusionment with that western-based ideology led to the creation of Pilon's group.
"They're trying to rewrite history, the Métis National Council … the true history of the Métis is very inclusive," said Pilon.
"If you want to have a true representation of Métis in Canada, they got to make sure all Métis are at the table," said Pilon. "Not just pick and choose just because one group has been around longer."
For his part, Chartier said other groups are welcome to their own negotiations, he just doesn't want them at the table with him and the Métis National Council.
"The government would be foolish to take a table with the Métis Nation and expand it to who knows what," said Chartier.
Special envoy, new process needed
Dwight Dorey, national chief of the Indigenous Peoples Assembly of Canada, said he suggested to Bennett that a special envoy be appointed to sort out the issues, someone like former Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Murray Sinclair, who is now a senator.
"She said she would take it to the 'centre,' whatever that means," Dorey said. The minister's office did not reply to requests for clarification, but the Prime Minister's Office is often referred to as the centre.
"This government talks about a new relationship, a new partnership, so let's do it fairly, equally and transparently," Dorey said.
In a statement, the minister's office said, "There is much work to be done" and that it will require "distinct and innovative approaches."
The government did not specify what it would do, if anything, to calm tensions or ensure an inclusive process.
Malette, the Aboriginal law expert, said things can still get back on track.
"Evidence and reason and common sense I hope will prevail in showing that a Métis diversity … shouldn't be seen as threatening one actor against the others," he said.