Métis in New Brunswick 'ecstatic' over Supreme Court ruling

Some 22,000 Métis and non-status Indians in New Brunswick are hoping Thursday's decision from Canada's highest court will bring concrete improvements to their quality of life.

About 22,000 Métis and non-status Indians in province hope Thursday's ruling will improve quality of life

Tanya Dubé, a director with the Canadian Métis Council's head office in Plaster Rock, says she's ecstatic the Supreme Court of Canada has granted Métis Indian status after a 17-year court battle. (Rachel Cave/CBC)

Some 22,000 Métis and non-status Indians in New Brunswick are hoping Thursday's decision from Canada's highest court will bring concrete improvements to their quality of life.

Wendy Wetteland, chief of the New Brunswick Aboriginal Peoples Council, believes Métis and non-status Indians will now be consulted about resource-related projects. (CBC)
In a unanimous decision, the nine Supreme Court of Canada justices upheld a trial judge's conclusion that Métis and non-status Indians are "Indians" under the Constitution Act, making them the responsibility of the federal government.

"I'm ecstatic," said Tanya Dubé, a director with the Canadian Métis Council, in Oxbow, N.B.

Dubé said she planned to celebrate by toasting Harry Daniels, the late Métis leader who launched the landmark case that bears his name in 1999.

Justice Rosalie Abella, writing for the court, said Métis and non-status persons were left in a "jurisdictional wasteland" because the federal and provincial governments had denied legal authority over them.

As a result, non-status people were denied access to social benefits and legal rights awarded to those with status.

Impact of lack of services widespread

"There's a large amount of issues that come from the fact that there's not been adequate programs and services provided to this group of people in Canada for so many years," said Wendy Wetteland, chief of the New Brunswick Aboriginal Peoples Council, which was granted intervener status at the Supreme Court of Canada hearings in October of 2015.

"I could talk about housing and from that, stems poverty and alcohol … and drug abuse and all kinds of issues stem from there," she said.

Wetteland anticipates Métis and non-status Indians will now be at the table when it comes to consulting on resource projects, such as the Sisson Brook mine north of Fredericton, and TransCanada Corporation's Energy East pipeline project, which would deliver oil from Alberta to Saint John.

University of New Brunswick assistant law Prof. Jula Hughes, who does research regarding the duty to consult in Atlantic Canada, also believes the negotiation table has become bigger, as a result of Thursday's decision.

"This is an emergent area of the law, so I wouldn't want to say anything that would sound like a closed list," she said when asked to provide examples of future negotiations.

"But certainly in the areas of duty to consult in the courts, resource extraction has probably been the biggest one."

Hughes says there was a variety of historical reasons for indigenous people to find themselves without status under the Indian Act.

The decision 'puts to rest the unsettled question festering since Confederation as to who is the responsible head of power for non-status Indians and Métis .'- New Brunswick Aboriginal Peoples Council

A grandmother or mother who married outside the aboriginal community, for example, could have been stripped of status. A male ancestor who joined the military would have gained the right to vote, but lost status.

"It may be that you come from a community where the Indian agents had not registered people," said Hughes. "It may be the case that you come from a community that never sought to be recognized."

The New Brunswick Aboriginal Peoples Council, once called the New Brunswick Association of Métis and Non–Status Indians, released a statement on Thursday saying the decision now "puts to rest the unsettled question festering since Confederation as to who is the responsible head of power for non-status Indians and Métis."

"And flatly ends the stereotype demeaning characterization of who an Indian is and where an Indian belongs."

Harry Daniels did not live to see the outcome of his complaint, some 17 years after he laid it. He died in 2004, but his son carried the torch as the legal arguments made their way through the courts.

"I'm overwhelmed and ecstatic, and I wish my father were here to see this," said Gabriel Daniels outside the court, when he learned the case had been settled once and for all.

"He'd probably do a jig right now."