A landmark ruling by the Federal Court, ending a 13-year legal dispute, should make life a little easier for close to 400 Metis living in Hay River.
The decision, made on Jan. 8 by Judge Michael Phelan, officially recognizes Metis and non-status Indians as ‘Indians’ within the meaning of the Constitution Act of 1867, Section 91(24).
Section 91 of the Canadian Constitution addresses parliament’s power: “It is hereby declared that the exclusive Legislative Authority of the Parliament of Canada extends to all Matters coming within the Classes of Subjects next hereinafter enumerated,” it states, and point 24 of that section is defined as “Indians, and Lands reserved for the Indians.”
As a result of the ruling, Metis and non-status Indians now fall under the description of ‘Indians’.
Close to 400,000 Metis and 200,000 non-status Indians in Canada will now be under federal jurisdiction, meaning Canada’s responsibilities towards those people are more clearly defined.
Wally Schumann, president of the Hay River Metis Council, said recognition is key.
“Where it goes from here, well, it doesn’t say whether the government has a fiduciary responsibility to us,” he said.
In paragraph 604 of his ruling, Judge Phelan states: “There is no dispute that the Crown has a fiduciary relationship with Aboriginal people both historically and pursuant to section 35.”
“That duty is not an open-ended undefined obligation, but must be focused on a specific interest,” he added.
One of the plaintiffs who testified during the case is Gabriel Daniels, the son of now-deceased Harry Daniels, one of the founding members of the Metis Association of the NWT and another plaintiff in the case against the federal government.
According to Gabriel’s testimony, his mother identified as Metis and also applied for registered status under the Indian Act, but was denied.
“The denial of that request by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada is indicative of the complexity of the issue as to who is an Indian and whether Metis are Indians under section 91(24) and the historical problem of categorizing such people,” Judge Phelan wrote.
Schumann said that, despite being recognized as ‘Indian’, Metis still have their own distinctions.
“Even if they recognize us on paper as ‘Indians’, we are still Metis people,” he said. “We have our own culture, our own way of life. It’s like calling someone an Indian: they may be Ojibwe or Cree, they still have their own culture.”
Schumann said they would continue forward just like the Metis always have.
The Metis president suspects the federal government will appeal the court decision.
With the ruling, he’s worried more people will have to share federal funding.
“I like an analogy I read recently. The writer said there is a big Aboriginal pie, which receives funding, and now you’re going to add 600,000 people to it,” he said. “The pie stays the same size and you start chopping it into smaller pieces. Hopefully, it won’t cause any dissention among us.”
Schumann said the ruling would be discussed further at the next board meeting of the Northwest Territory Metis Nation, scheduled for Jan. 21-22 in Hay River.