Métis hunting rights have roots in northern Ontario: 'It's something that needed to be done'
Thanks to the Powley decision of 2004, today 1,400 Métis are allowed to hunt and fish in Ontario
Hunters and Gatherers is a series looking at hunting and fishing in northern Ontario, how Indigenous rights can divide people, how some northerners find ways to share the resources and what sharing the land means for reconciliation.
After centuries of being ashamed of their indentity, Métis people were starting to assert themselves by Oct. 22 1993, when Steve and Rod Powley of Sault Ste. Marie were butchering a moose in their backyard.
Their court battle to have the right to kill that moose and harvest other plants and animals in the same woods their ancestors did would go a long way to making the Métis a nation.
"The community has been able to lift their heads and be proud of who they are," says Métis Nation of Ontario chair France Picotte, who is from Timmins.
Brenda Powley, Steve's wife and Rod's mother, remembers the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry officials coming that day after a neighbour reported the moose being hunted out of season.
"They take the meat and then came back and laid the charges. It's a bit sad, because you're out your meat for the winter. And this time because he decided he wasn't going to just pay the fine he was going to fight the case this time," Brenda said.
To fight that case, the Powleys enlisted Jean Teillet.
She was a young lawyer then, just passed the bar. She was also the great-grandniece of Louis Riel and one of several Métis leaders who was looking for a case which they could use to enshrine Métis hunting and fishing rights, as the Sparrow decision had done for First Nations people three years earlier.
Teillet says Steve Powley like many other Métis were tired of hunting at night to avoid conservation officers.
"Métis people have a joke that most kids grow up thinking moose are nocturnal creatures because everybody hunted at night," says Teillet.
Teillet argued the case at local courts, then appealed to higher and higher levels of the justice system.
She remembers one Crown attorney who was constantly asking for adjournments and she gave a big speech, calling on the judge to not delay the trial any further.
"He finally looked at me and said 'Ms. Teillet. This is clearly going all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. You don't want me to deny them an adjournment and then have this whole case be about that.' And I said to myself 'OK, suck it up Jean. That's what he's telling you: suck it up. Just keep going.'"
The case did keep going for 11 years and in 2004, came the Supreme Court ruling that the Powleys and other Métis people had the right to hunt and fish in their traditional territory.
"I thought you get the big broad principle set out and that'll be it," says Teillet.
"That is exactly what did not happen. Everybody dug in their heels and said 'Well, maybe the Sault Ste. Marie do, but that doesn't mean the Manitoba Métis do. And we had to start taking cases all across the Métis nation homeland."
Teillet says Métis people in the western provinces are still regularly charged by conservation officers.
In Ontario, that ended when the Métis Nation struck an agreement with the provincial government in 2007.
In order to access their hunting and fishing rights, a Métis person has to prove an ancestral connection to one of the seven traditional Métis communities in the province and then apply for a Métis harvester's card.
Métis Nation of Ontario chair France Picotte says they currently are allowed to hand out 1,400 cards and there is a waiting list of Métis people hoping to get one.
Picotte is hopeful that an ongoing audit will eventually lead to an unlimited number of Métis people being allowed to exercise their rights.
But the Métis Nation of Ontario also has a set of harvesting rules for members to follow, including set seasons for moose and deer hunting, a ban on fishing spawning areas and an overarching principle to only harvest what you need.
"If we have these rights and we abuse them and harvest anytime, during calfing or we harvest in spawning areas, then our next generation and the generation after that and the generation after that, they don't have anything to exercise their rights on," says Picotte.
But the Métis harvesting rules are more guidelines. What they really determine is whether or not the Métis Nation will represent a member in court, if they happen to be charged by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.
Picotte says they will defend a member if they were abiding by the Métis Nation rules, but she hopes to move towards Métis having their own enforcement system for hunting and fishing.
"It's something that we need to do because everything that we do we try to do towards that ability to self-govern, which means self-regulation also," she says.
Picotte says these steps towards nationhood all follow down the path set out by the Powley decision.
Steve Powley has since passed away, but his widow Brenda says having their name on a landmark court decision continues to be a source of pride for her family.
"It wasn't so much proud of his name on it. He didn't fight the court case on a personal level. He was very proud that he could pass something onto his grandkids," she says.
"Sometimes you think it's forgotten and you meet somebody and they say 'are you related to those Powleys?' It's kind of embarrassing, but it's proud. It's something that needed to be done."