by Jeremy Appel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
(ANNews) – Four months after speaking out against provincial legislation that alters how Alberta’s seven Metis settlements are governed, the Metis Settlements General Council (MSGC) is taking the United Conservative Party to court.
On July 27, the MSGC filed a claim against the Government of Alberta to halt the implementation of Bill 57 — the Metis Settlements Amendment Act — which would cut the size of the MSGC executive in half to two officers and require settlement councils to have between three and five elected councillors, as well as forcing them to disclose councillors’ pay, and fees collected for utilities and road maintenance.
The legislation received royal assent on June 17, two weeks after passing its third and final reading in the legislature.
In a news release announcing the challenge, MSGC president Herb Lehr says Indigenous Relations Minister Rick Wilson “is unilaterally imposing his will in a colonial way” while preliminary discussions with the MSGC were underway.
“The MSGC provided guidance on what should and should not be included in the consultation related to the act, but the consultation itself never proceeded,” Lehr said, adding that the MSGC didn’t see the contents of the bill until it was first tabled on March 11.
A statement of claim filed with the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta in Edmonton accuses the province of violating sec. 35 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which affirms the treaty rights of Indigenous peoples, including the Metis.
The suit alleges the province used the COVID crisis as cover for imposing its will on Metis communities. “In early March 2020 the COVID-19 global pandemic led to a significant slowdown in the ongoing process of discussions,” the statement reads.
“The General Council and the Métis Settlements had to dedicate resources to responding to an unprecedented public health emergency. In-person meetings to prepare for and attend discussion sessions and, particularly, to conduct essential community consultation became impossible.”
According to Lehr, the ministry maintains the bill was a response to complaints from the MSGC membership about how they were being represented, but Lehr says the minister hasn’t provided MSGC leadership with any evidence of this.
“We have repeatedly requested copies of the alleged grievances from alleged members. This further reminds of the paternalistic policies that have inflicted harm upon Indigenous communities,” said Lehr. “This is especially true at this time following the unearthing of colonial injustices of the past.”
This isn’t an isolated incident, he added. “This is a pattern of behaviour with the Kenney government – they dodge public input to drive their agenda and we have seen time and again: the nurses, the doctors, the post-secondary sector, coal mining, and so on,” Lehr said.
Wilson chief of staff Ted Bauer declined the CBC’s request for comment on the lawsuit, but confirmed the ministry is aware of it.
Back in March, Wilson claimed opposition to Bill 57 was coming from councillors insecure about potentially losing power. “I’ve heard that it’s time to modernize that act to better meet the wishes of the settlement residents for more sustainable and self-governing communities, with more transparent finances and government administration and less involvement from Alberta’s government,” Wilson said.
In December, CTV News quoted Wilson saying the then-upcoming changes were, at least in part, a “creative” cost-cutting measure in response to the province’s “tough fiscal situation”.
Alberta is the only province with a land-based Metis population, with 5,000 people residing on eight settlements that make up 1.25 million acres of land spread throughout northern Alberta.