Quebec community looks to the Supreme Court of Canada for recognition of Métis rights
No court has yet recognized any Métis community east of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
This article is a part of our series, 'Exploring Identity.' We're taking a closer look at issues surrounding identity in Inuit, First Nations and Métis communities.
It's been over a decade since Ghislain Corneau first brought his fight to the Quebec courts seeking recognition of constitutional rights-bearing Métis to occupy hunting camps on public lands, and now he is waiting to hear if the Supreme Court of Canada will hear the case.
Corneau is a member of Communauté métisse du Domaine du Roy et de la Seigneurie de Mingan (CMDRSM), an organization that incorporated in 2005 with the mission to defend the rights of 4,000 members living across the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec who say they are Métis.
The Quebec government, as well as the Métis National Council, do not recognize the existence of Métis communities in the province, but Corneau and other members of the community are looking to the courts to assert rights under section 35 of the Constitution to continue using and occupying their camps in order to exercise hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering practices.
In 1999, Corneau was charged with building a hunting camp on public lands without the province's authorization under the Act Respecting Lands in the Domain of the State. A decade later, several other hunters from the community had their hunting camps on Crown land taken down or burned.
"We have more than 100 members that have to deal with the same situation," said André Tremblay, a member of the community's legal committee.
"It's very important that our rights be recognized by the government."
The case was brought to the Quebec Superior Court in 2007, and to the Quebec Court of Appeal in 2018. Neither decisions ruled in their favour. Since October, they've been waiting to hear from the Supreme Court of Canada on an application for leave to appeal.
Could be the first of its kind
The community was the first organization in Quebec to attempt to meet the Powley Test in a case to the Québec Superior Court in 2007.
- For more on the Powley Test, read Exploring Identity: Who are the Métis and what are their rights?
If successful, it will be the furthest attempt to have a court recognizes the existence of a section 35 constitutional rights-bearing Métis community east of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
Karole Dumont-Beckett, elected chief of the Council of the First Métis Peoples of Canada, has been watching the case closely. She submitted an affidavit in the Corneau case's application for leave to appeal.
"It's a big case. It's not just the Corneau case, it's a case of discrimination against Métis people outside of the Métis National Council," said Dumont-Beckett.
The Council of the First Métis Peoples of Canada has more than 5,000 members of Eastern Métis based primarily in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
"To be denied our birth right to continue gathering in our traditional manners is detrimental to our peoples. It's discrimination," she said.
Not recognized by Quebec or Métis National Council
Quebec's Office of the Minister responsible for Indigenous Affairs told CBC News that there are no Métis communities possessing constitutional rights in the province. The Métis National Council also does not recognize the community.
The Métis National Council (MNC) intervened in the Corneau case during the Quebec Court of Appeal, as did three Innu First Nations.
Clément Chartier, president of the MNC, said the organization is concerned about courts reinterpreting and altering the Powley Test.
"Our primary interest is to ensure that the courts don't do any further harm to the Métis Nation by going too expansive with the term Métis that's contained in Section 35.2 of the Constitution Act, not to turn it into 'anybody with mixed ancestry is Métis,'" said Chartier.
"It makes the existence of the historic Métis Nation meaningless if everybody starts saying the Métis are simply people of mixed ancestry and nothing more. It wipes out our existence as a distinct people with a homeland and a territory."
Last year, the nation issued a map defining its homeland.
"We're simply stating that there is only one Métis Nation, one Métis people and we're based as you say primarily in Western Canada," he said.
Other Powley Test cases
Since R. v. Powley in 2003, there have been 30 organizations created to represent self-identified Métis people in Quebec, according to research conducted by Darryl Leroux, an associate professor at Saint Mary's University in Halifax.
In addition to the Corneau case, there's been five other cases seeking recognition as Métis under the Powley Test in Quebec courts. Leroux said another six are on the dockets.
Similar court cases also happening in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. None of them have passed the Powley Test.
"All of them have been rejected on the basis that they haven't been able to demonstrate that they belonged to a historical Métis community," he said.
André Tremblay said new evidence will be presented in the Corneau case to prove a historic Métis community was in the region between the end of the 17th century and the middle of the 19th century, if heard by the Supreme Court of Canada.
"The opinion of the Quebec government that there are no Métis communities, we strongly disagree with that," he said.
"But we're saying that today we have that strong evidence that there was a Métis community here."
It's based on quantitative data by Étienne Rivard, an assistant professor at Université de Saint-Boniface in Winnipeg. He says historic census data demonstrates that there were more than 1,120 Métis living in the region in 1850 in clusters.
'I am a descendant of sauvages'
The Corneau case hasn't come without criticism. Leroux examined the group's claim to a Métis nation in Quebec in his soon-to-be published book Distorted Descent: White Claims to Indigenous Identity. He analyzed 31 interviews of CMDRSM leaders and members that presented a part of its expert testimony in the Corneau case, as well as 27 ancestral genealogies submitted to the court for the case.
According to his 2013 testimony, Corneau said he claimed to be Métis based on culture he inherited from his father who showed him to hunt.
"I am a descendant of sauvages," he testified in French.
The court document said he only started to identify as Indigenous in 1980.
"It's because before we did not need, we could always do without ... we had camps, nobody bothered us," he said to the interviewer.
Corneau and some members count an ancestor five to six generations back as the basis of their Indigeneity, but Leroux said for other members, the Indigenous ancestor goes even further back.
"All of the ancestors that they're reclaiming are women who are more than 10 generations away and are born in the 1600s," said Leroux.
Leroux argues that the organization's incorporation in 2005 was tied directly to white, non-Indigenous opposition to the negotiation of a comprehensive land claim in the area between the federal and provincial governments and Innu First Nations in the region.
"We see a very racist, anti-Indigenous movement develop when the details of the land claim started to become public in 2000 and then again in 2002 when the agreement in principle was announced," said Leroux.
"Through my research through looking at the documents that this organization produces, I demonstrated that much of the leadership of what becomes the Métis organization comes from that movement against the Innu."
Representatives from the Communauté métisse du Domaine du Roy et de la Seigneurie de Mingan declined to comment on Leroux's allegations, but Karole Dumont-Beckett shed some light on her perspective.
"All the Métis are seeking the same recognition, the same justice. We're not asking to take anything away from First Nations, we ask that our rights are respected," said Dumont-Beckett.
"We're not going to give up just because the government says there's no Métis. They need to learn their history. They need to stop relying on so-called experts or professors who are working against the Eastern Métis."