By Jeremy Appel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
(ANNews) – First Nations and Métis leaders are divided over impending federal legislation recognizing certain Métis governments in Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta as distinct orders of government.
Bill C-53, which was introduced in the House of Commons in June, is now before the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs for further examination.
The legislation has been criticized for providing official recognition to six Métis communities in Ontario of questionable legitimacy, alongside concerns that future Métis treaties with the Crown could potentially impede on First Nations Treaty rights.
In committee, Martin Reiher, a senior bureaucrat in the Crown-Indigenous Relations Department, conceded that the federal government hasn’t verified the legitimacy of any specific communities covered by the legislation, which he maintained is outside the feds’ purview.
“They aren’t doing their homework to make sure that they are hearing from the right people,” NDP MP Lori Idlout, who sits on the committee, told The Canadian Press on Dec. 1.
“And I can understand why First Nations in Ontario would be greatly concerned about what’s going on.”
Nippissing First Nation Chief Scott McLeod told CP that Reiher’s comments demonstrate that the bill was “legislated out of thin air.”
Echoing comments from Métis Nation of Ontario president Margaret Froh, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree told the committee that it’s unfair to “deny [the] existence” of Métis communities in Ontario, which the provincial government recognized in 2017.
“Our communities are deeply hurt by the falsehoods that are being perpetuated by some and the notion that finally recognizing the Métis people and our rights takes away from the rights of anyone else,” Froh told CP. “We strongly disagree that reconciliation is a zero-sum game.”
The Supreme Court of Canada’s 2003 Powley decision recognized a Métis community in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., but the court hasn’t ruled on the legitimacy of the six other communities in question.
On Nov. 29, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) called on the feds to “immediately withdraw” Bill C-53.
Interim AFN national chief Joanna Bernard said the government needs to go back to the drawing board “to develop a respectful First Nations-led process that ensures all impacts of this legislation are thoroughly considered.”
“The development of Bill C-53 failed to include a process for First Nations to voice their concerns regarding the potential negative impacts of overlapping Métis rights assertions or concerns regarding unfounded Métis rights assertions,” said Bernard.
If Métis treaties negotiated as a result of Bill C-53 include the right to land-based practices, such as hunting, harvesting, fishing and resource management, these could very well overlap with First Nations’ inherent, Treaty and section 35 Charter rights, resulting in costly legal proceedings, the AFN cautioned.
Minister Anandasangaree maintains that the legislation does not pertain to land rights, but acknowledged that the treaties resulting from it very well could.
Idlout said this needs to be made explicit in the legislation.
“If the intent is that there will not be land or resource rights being infringed, then clearly state that,” she said.
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Cathy Merrick said passing Bill C-53 without First Nations’ input would be a “great disservice to the good work done in the name of reconciliation.”
“Canada has a duty to consult with First Nations,” Grand Chief Merrick added. “This duty is triggered when the Crown contemplates conduct or makes a decision that engages a potential aboriginal or treaty right, the Crown has knowledge of that right, and there is potential for the contemplated conduct to adversely affect the right.”
The Métis National Council (MNC), which is composed of the leadership of the Métis nations of Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan, as well as British Columbia, which isn’t included in Bill C-53, supports the legislation.
MNC President Cassidy Caron said its support for the bill is the product of its mandate of “ensuring that Métis rights, including the right to self-determination, are advanced and respected.”
In 2021, the MNC National Assembly voted in favour of creating an expert panel to investigate the six Métis communities in Ontario whose legitimacy has been questioned. That panel is expected to report back to the MNC later this year.
In an Oct. 25 statement, the Métis Nation of Alberta called Bill C-53 “reconciliation in action.”
“Self-government means that we decide for ourselves how to best support Métis in Alberta,” MNA President Andrea Sandmaier said. “We decide what our housing and health programs look like. We decide how to help prepare our young people with world-class education and training. We decide how to support our elders as they age.
“And we decide how to move forward together. Only through self-government will the voices of Métis people be truly heard.”