Why the court’s Métis decision is wrong

Posted on January 10, 2013 in Equality Policy Context

TheStar.com – news/canada/politics
January 09, 2013.   By Thomas Walkom, National Affairs Columnist

This week’s federal court decision on Métis and non-status Indians has opened a Pandora’s box.

Federal Court Justice Michael Phelan ruled Tuesday that both groups should be considered Indians under the Constitution. Should that decision stand (and given Supreme Court precedents the odds are good), it promises to make aboriginal politics in this country even more impossible.

Canada is a strange place. On the one hand, we trumpet diversity and the equality of all, regardless of origin.

But on the other, the very history of this country is enmeshed in racial distinction. The first European settlers in what is now Canada signed agreements with those who happened to be living there at the time.

Those agreements, or treaties, created for all time a division between the original inhabitants (commonly referred to as Indians) and the newcomers. They would live side by side, usually in different communities. Each side would more or less mind its own business with the two tied only by fealty to the British Crown.

The Iroquois of the Six Nations near present-day Brantford refer to this as the two-row wampum.

For both sides, the arrangement made sense. In the early years, the Indian nations were more powerful militarily than the Europeans. In later years, this was reversed.

In both eras, treaties kept conflict to a minimum.

But life is rarely neat. Europeans and Indians did what people do — they fell in love across the treaty lines, married, had kids.

For more than 100 years, native women who married white men were kicked off their treaty reserves (there was, after all, only so much land).

Sometimes, and particularly in what is now Manitoba, the offspring of Indians and Europeans referred to themselves as Métis, or mixed.

Canada’s Indian Act, put in place in 1876, tried to codify what the new Dominion thought it owed those it called status Indians — that is, those who could prove their blood line was sufficiently pure.

Ever since, natives have been trying to figure out how to escape the limitations of the Indian Act. Yet they are unwilling to scrap it.

Phelan’s decision, if taken to its logical end, would end up extending the current strange mixture of privilege and discrimination that is Canada’s Indian Act to at least 600,000 more people.

I say “at least” because who is Métis? Who is a non-status Indian? Phelan himself concludes there is no hard and fast rule. He argues that the best way is through a combination of self-definition and acceptance by a third party.

A Métis, therefore, would be someone who defined himself as such and was accepted by a recognized Métis organization.

Right now, there are few specific advantages to being Métis, just as there are few advantages to being, say, part Chinese and part German.

But if self-identified Métis win rights equal to those in the Indian Act they are liable to reap plenty of advantages, ranging from tax exemptions to subsidized university education.

If Phelan’s decision is ultimately upheld, look for a massive explosion in the number of people who suddenly discover previously hidden aboriginal ancestors.

Phelan’s ruling seems to rest on his conclusion that Métis and non-status Indians have been treated as badly as status Indians. If that’s the case, then surely the solution is to ensure that these two groups are treated better rather than expand a flawed and ultimately racist set of distinctions.

Historically, blacks too have been the object of discrimination. But the answer is not to redefine blacks as Indians.

In my last column I noted that the people of Attawapiskat suffer a 70 per unemployment rate even though they live beside a rich diamond mine. I should have pointed out De Beers Canada’s Victor mine and its contractors employ about 100 Attawapiskat residents, which is roughly one-fifth of its permanent labour force. De Beers, to its credit, has also set up two training centres in the village and has contracts with local suppliers. Alas, the Attawapiskat jobless rate is still 70 per cent.

< http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/politics/article/1312902–walkom-why-the-court-s-metis-decision-is-wrong >

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