Manitoba Métis Win Historic Land Claims Case Against Canada

Published in Indian Country Today Media Network | March 8, 2013 | Circulation: 300,000 unique monthly visitors

Métis people in Canada are jubilant after the Supreme Court of Canada resolved a legal land battle that was 143 years in the making, the second historic constitutional victory in months.

The country’s highest court ruled on March 8 that those of mixed European-Indigenous ancestry, descendents from Manitoba’s Red River Settlement, hold valid grievances because the government broke its promises over 19th-century land grants.

The court found that the government “acted with persistent inattention and failed to act diligently” in failing to respect an 1870 land agreement—a promise that ended a massive and bloody uprising led by Métis heroes Gabriel Dumont and Louis Riel. The government had pledged to give the Métis 1.4 million acres in Manitoba back then, and then never fully delivered. Métis leaders argued their case before the court at the end of 2011.

The president of the Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF), David Chartrand, invoked the memory of Riel, considered the historical founder of the prairie province, and was planning to hold a press conference at the famous statesman and rebel’s grave on the grounds of Winnipeg’s St. Boniface Cathedral on Saturday, March 9.

“He said there were two societies with treaty together,” Chartrand told reporters, of Riel. “One was small, but in its smallness had its rights. The other was great, but in its greatness had no greater rights than the rights of the small. You know, how much more fitting can that be today?”

Chartrand said he had been receiving emotional phone calls all day, since the ruling was announced. The MMF has been pursuing the constitutional case for roughly 50 years and spent $5 million toward gaining recognition for the Métis’ land grievances.

“Such pride at home right now, and tears are being shed,” Chartrand said. “They’re crying and they’re phoning. They can’t even talk on the phone properly because there’s so much joy at home right now.”

The ruling comes only months after another Supreme Court ruling extended Indian identity to a much wider range of mixed-blood and off-reserve aboriginals—a decision the government is currently appealing.

In other provinces, Métis leaders praised the ruling as a historic step forward for their people. Métis see themselves as a nation, unified by common traditions, history, the Michif language and even a distinctive national flag—a white infinity symbol on a purple background.

“This is about, certainly, more than the Métis people of Manitoba,” Gary Lipinski, of the Métis Nation of Ontario, told the Canadian Press. “They’re our brothers and sisters, but it has implications for Métis people right across our homeland. We hope that, obviously, with the positive outcome of this case, the federal government will now look to see how we’re going to deal with Métis historic grievances that are throughout the Métis homeland.”

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and Justice Andromache Karakatsanis explained the court’s 6–2 decision as righting a historical wrong.

“What is at issue is a constitutional grievance going back almost a century and a half,” the judges wrote. “So long as the issue remains outstanding, the goal of reconciliation and constitutional harmony … remains unachieved. The ongoing rift in the national fabric … remains unremedied.”

The ruling, they added, has massive implications for future Canadian-Métis relationships: “The unfinished business of reconciliation of the Métis people with Canadian sovereignty is a matter of national and constitutional import.”

Representing the MMF in court, former judge and prominent Indigenous rights advocate Thomas Berger explained that the victory opens the door to negotiations over Métis land rights. But it will likely also spur land claims over vast tracts of Manitoba, including the entirety of its provincial capital, Winnipeg.

“They’ve won a great victory, and I think they’ve shown that there is every reason for negotiations now to remedy a historic wrong,” Berger told reporters. He added that Canada should not “leave a train of historic wreckage behind us as we move from one decade to another.”

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