What the Métis decision means for Canada

Posted on January 9, 2013 in Equality Policy Context

TheGlobeandMail.com – commentary
Jan. 09 2013.   Jeffrey Simpson

The Government of Canada will spend about $250-billion on all of its programs in 2013-2014. Put that in the context of the assertion made by a lawyer representing some of the Indian leaders who are meeting Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Friday.

According to Jeffrey Rath, “indigenous people” are owed “tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars” by the federal government because of lands, resources and other materials taken from these “peoples.” The “hundreds of billions” figure is a guess. Could be more, could be less. Who cares when everything is based on the assertion that most of us live on stolen land and, therefore, owe almost whatever money is demanded, plus penance and apologies and, of course, guilt.

To these demands have now been added the claims of the Métis and non-status Indians, who, the Federal Court of Canada ruled on Tuesday (in a judgment that will almost certainly be appealed by the government), had the right to be treated in the same way as Indians.

As there are 400,000 people who identify as Métis, the financial obligations on the federal and provincial governments could be extremely heavy, indeed.

Back when the Charter of Rights was being negotiated in the early 1980s, it was obvious that the status Indian leadership and that of the Métis were superficially polite to each other but deeply distrustful. The Indians did not consider the Métis to be fully Indian (as, indeed, they were not and are not), and the groups’ treatment experiences within Canada had been different. The Métis, however, saw similarities where status Indians did not, and were anxious that the status Indians not receive constitutional protection that escaped them.

And now the Federal Court says, in essence, that the two groups were treated sufficiently the same, and were lumped together by governments many decades ago, so they should be considered in a similar fashion today. Which will mean endless negotiations, considerable litigation and, if the Métis are ultimately successful, a huge additional financial obligation on the government that status Indians can only hope doesn’t come from what they’re receiving. If, indeed, the government owes the Indians “hundreds of billions” of dollars, according to one of their lawyers, what might Métis lawyers demand?

Of course, a large number of Métis have integrated into what we might call mainstream society. So we will now be treated, in ways the judge hinted at but didn’t define (how could he?), to procedures by which a Métis person is to be defined.

What definition will be used in terms of what share of ancestry was aboriginal, and how long ago? Who’s to say who’s a Métis: the claimant, or some adjudicating board? Obviously, it will be important to know when allocating benefits, just as it is for any other government program. A person can’t claim to be entitled to a pension without proving age or citizenship with documentation.

It’s not a judge’s business to worry about public reaction, but this ruling, should it be upheld, is likely to prove highly controversial, to put matters mildly. The Métis who wanted this designation will be delighted; they have fought for their sense of justice in constitutional negotiations and courtrooms for more than three decades.

The judgment, however, lands at a particularly delicate moment, what with the Idle No More movement, demonstrations, the failure by police to enforce court injunctions, an inflamed sense of aboriginal oppression, Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike, and garbled accounting records all making the news, not to mention the meeting on Friday between some chiefs and the Prime Minister.

For all the obeisance paid to the rituals of multiculturalism, the majority of Canadian society is extremely integrationist – far more so than the United States or Europe – within the two broad streams of French- and English-language groups. Citizens who have joined, or are seeking as immigrants to join, the broad Canadian mainstream are likely to be themselves confused and resentful on being told they owe “hundreds of billions” of dollars, along with restitution and guilt; and that the Métis and non-status Indians have now joined status Indians on an equal footing.

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