Edmonton

Alberta Métis settlements challenging provincial legislation in court

The organization representing Alberta’s Métis settlements is suing the provincial government over a piece of legislation passed in June.

Leaders allege government acted unilaterally, breached the Constitution

Herb Lehr is president of Alberta's Métis Settlements General Council. (Jamie McCannel/CBC)

The organization representing Alberta's Métis settlements is suing the provincial government over a piece of legislation passed in June.

In a statement of claim filed Tuesday, the Métis Settlements General Council asks the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench to declare recent legal changes to be unconstitutional and throw them out.

Council president Herb Lehr says settlement leaders are opposed to some, but not all of the changes to legislation governing the powers, structure and duties of Métis settlements and their councils.

More galling, he said, is the process by which the United Conservative Party government imposed the changes unilaterally, without adequate consultation.

"It goes against our way — our cultural beliefs on how to govern ourselves," Lehr said Tuesday. "And to be dictated by non-Indigenous people telling us as an Indigenous people what's good for us, just reminds me of residential school."

Indigenous Relations Minister Rick Wilson introduced Bill 57, the Métis Settlements Amendment Act, in March, and the legislature passed it in June.

It will change the size of the councils governing individual settlements and the general council representing all settlements. It set new limits on settlement councillors' pay and how their remuneration must be disclosed to members.

It requires settlement councils to adopt essential services bylaws spelling out fees they will collect for utilities and road maintenance.

In March, Wilson said in an interview the changes came at the request of "grassroots" settlement residents.

The aim is to give settlements more independence, he said at the time.

"These are issues that are ongoing and keep coming up," he said. "In the past several years, I've been to all the settlements except for one, and I hear these same concerns everywhere."

The changes also come as the end of 10-year provincial funding agreement looms in 2023.

Lehr said that money pays for water treatment plant staff, road repair and garbage dump maintenance, local policing and other costs.

The provincial government has said it has no intention of extending that agreement, which currently grants $5 million annually to the eight settlements.

Lehr said the people left to shoulder those costs are those least equipped to pay, including elderly folks with fixed incomes and a growing number of young people with inadequate access to education.

He suspects the government forced the changes because it wants the mineral rights underneath the settlements' 1.25 million acres of land. He wouldn't specify which underground treasures lie beneath them. 

Suit says government ran afoul of constitutional obligations

In the lawsuit, the council alleges the government has breached an accord the parties signed in 1989 that affirmed Métis control of settlement lands and their mechanisms of self-government.

The suit contends that changing the law without their agreement violates the constitutional rights of Métis people.

Lehr wanted the settlements to hold plebiscites on the changes to gauge potential support before the government proceeded.

The government wanted the new law in place before the settlements hold council elections in October.

None of the allegations have been proven in court. The province has yet to file a statement of defence.

In a statement, Wilson's chief of staff, Ted Bauer, said the government became aware of the suit on Tuesday, and it would be inappropriate to comment on matters before the court.

Calgary-Mountainview NDP MLA Kathleen Ganley said she's not surprised to see the council sue the government. The Opposition argued against the bill in the legislature.

Ganley said it was condescending to impose changes without the settlements' consent.

"I think it's highly problematic and it's a deeply inappropriate way to treat Indigenous people in this province."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janet French is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has also worked at the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca

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