Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and the Métis Nation of Ontario have signed a landmark agreement, a deal that could result in new benefits for Indigenous people of mixed heritage, pending the outcome of negotiations.
The two parties agreed Friday to hold talks to work through long-standing Métis grievances with the federal government, namely the contention that Ottawa broke its promise to hand over land to the Métis in exchange for Manitoba joining Canada in 1870, a deal struck by Louis Riel.
It is hard to predict, at this early stage, what could come from a deal — but financial compensation, access to federal spending on health and education programs, the right to self-governance and possibly a land claim are on the table for the 86,015 Métis living in Canada's largest province.
Leadership from the Métis community will consult with its membership before it makes specific demands.
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In a statement, Bennett called it a "historic step forward in achieving lasting and meaningful reconciliation for the benefit of the Métis Nation of Ontario and all Canadians."
Margaret Froh, the president of the Métis Nation of Ontario, said Friday's memorandum has been 150 years in the making, as her people have long been forgotten in the discussion around Aboriginal rights, which has principally focused on First Nations and the Inuit.
The Constitution Act, 1982 recognized the Métis as a distinct and separate people, with rights and title, but little has been done to put those principles into practice, Froh said.
"We know that Métis, in terms of the socioeconomic indicators, we know that we fall behind Canadians, on every single marker — education, health, housing," Froh said.
Métis leaders have argued their people "fall through the cracks" when it comes to health services, employment and training, and education, supports that are offered to First Nations.
"Over the last 150 years, other Indigenous Peoples have had access to, for example, federal government policies, programs and services. The Métis have been excluded, and so with this signing of the memorandum … we're finally going to begin to move forward to define the relationship," she said in an interview with Rosemary Barton on Power & Politics.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised during the last election campaign to more adequately address Métis rights claims, which have been recognized by the Supreme Court in a number of recent decisions, including the Daniels case, which definitively ruled that tens of thousands of Métis and non-status Indians are the responsibility of the federal government.
Prior to that ruling, the court found, Métis and non-status Indians were a "political football," passed between federal and provincial governments, a situation that deprived the communities of significant federal funding for programs and benefits.
The Supreme Court did not specify what particular benefits Métis stood to gain from this status — if any — leaving it up to the two parties to negotiate on a nation-to-nation basis, hence the push to more clearly enunciate Métis rights.
Both sides will also have to accept who exactly a Métis is for negotiation purposes, something that has been a source of contention.
The Métis National Council has long said the only people who can rightfully claim to be Métis are those who are accepted by the larger community, and can trace their ancestry to someone who lived in the "historic Métis homeland," which includes the three Prairie provinces and extends into Ontario, B.C., and the Northwest Territories.
This definition thereby excludes people who live east of Ontario, or those who cannot trace their roots back to an ancestor descended from a mixed European and First Nations marriage, in this area, from the 1700s onwards.
Others, including the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, a group that represents Indians living off reserve, and some Métis peoples, have said that definition is too restrictive.
"For us, it is very, very, clear and there is no confusion [who is a Métis]. I think there is the potential for others to be engaged in those kinds of queries and I'm sure it's going to be something the federal government will have to contend with," Froh said.