Canada's top court to rule on Métis, non-status Indian rights

It's taken 17 years, but today the Supreme Court of Canada is set to finally deliver a decision that could clarify the relationship between Ottawa and tens of thousands of Métis and non-status Indians.

Could extend government's responsibilities to 200,000 Métis, 400,000 non-status aboriginal people

A Supreme Court decision coming down on Thursday could have huge implications for hundreds of thousands of Métis and non-status Indians. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

It's taken 17 years, but today the Supreme Court of Canada is set to finally deliver a decision that could clarify the relationship between Ottawa and tens of thousands of Métis and non-status Indians.

Today's ruling could potentially extend the federal government's responsibilities to approximately 200,000 Métis and 400,000 non-status aboriginal people who are not affiliated with specific reserves and have essentially no access to First Nations programs, services and rights.

"This could be a turning point for many families," said Duane Morrisseau-Beck, a Métis man who lives in Ottawa but whose family still lives in Manitoba.

"We're like the cousins that have none."

Métis and non-status Indians have long argued that because neither the provinces nor Ottawa have been willing to accept jurisdiction, they have fallen through the cracks. That's led to poor educational outcomes, health problems, high unemployment and lack of economic development in Métis communities.

"This may change the landscape," Morrisseau-Beck said.

Case launched in 1999

The landmark case was first launched in 1999 by prominent Métis leader Harry Daniels — who was then president of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples — along with Leah Gardner, a non-status Anishinaabe woman, and Terry Joudrey, a non-status Mi'kmaq man.

But the case, known as Daniels vs. Canada, only went to trial in 2011 and final arguments were heard in 2015. Daniels died in 2004.
Prominent Métis leader Harry Daniels is behind the landmark Métis and non-status Indian rights case now before the Supreme Court. Daniels died in 2004. (Native Council of PEI)

When the case went before the Supreme Court in 2015, his son Gabriel Daniels said he believes his father was meant to fight for the betterment of his people.

"One of the big reasons he was here was to do this," Daniels said. "It's really an honour to see it unfold and I just hope it goes the way we want."

Gabriel Daniels and the current head of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, Dwight Dorey, will be at the Supreme Court when the judgment is released on Thursday.

Decision eagerly awaited 

Métis and other aboriginal groups across the country will be waiting for this decision as well.

Hunting, fishing and forestry rights for non-status Indians could be acknowledged and respected, according to the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples. It could also mean non-status communities would have to be consulted when there's development on their lands.
Gabriel Daniels is the son of the late Harry Daniels who started the landmark court battle for Métis rights in 1999. (CBC)

In a news release, the head of the Métis Nation of Ontario said he expects the court to rule in their favour, which could open the process for federal comprehensive and specific land claims processes currently only available to First Nations and the Inuit.

"While a positive outcome in the Daniels case won't change this reality overnight, it will remove one of the last vestiges used by Canada historically to justify its inaction when it comes to dealing with Métis," stated president Gary Lipinski.

Morrisseau-Beck also plans to be outside the Supreme Court on Thursday and said Métis family and friends from across the country have been asking him to share the news as soon as he hears it.

And while he worries the government could still drag its feet while acting on the decision, he feels it will be an important victory and one that cements the place of Métis and non-status Indians in the history of Canada.

"In my family and in many Métis families across the country, this is really more of a recognition of the many contributions that we've made to this country and what this country is really about."

With files from Karina Roman