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Interview: Metis National Council president Clément Chartier

Graham F. Scott

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Metis National Council president Clément Chartier

Metis National Council president Clément Chartier

Today we’ve got a new entry in the Verbatim series, the transcripts we provide of our Listen to This podcast. (Just a reminder that you can catch new, original interviews every other Monday—you can subscribe with any podcast listening program by grabbing the podcast rss feed, or easily subscribing through iTunes.)

In this interview, Nick Taylor-Vaisey talks with Clément Chartier, president of the Metis National Council, about the MNC’s relationship with the federal government, the legislative successes it has forged, what still needs to be done, and how the Metis nation’s interests coincide with First Nations and Inuit constitutencies.


Nick Taylor-Vaisey: We’re talking about the future, in this podcast, of the Metis Nation, the Metis people in Canada. We’re a couple of days into a session of Parliament, on Parliament Hill, we’re sitting just a few blocks away from those politicians down the street. What kind of role do they play in the future of Metis people? How are you going to talk to them or engage with them, over the next days, weeks, months, and years?

Clément Chartier: Well, of course, as we know, Members of Parliament form government or opposition with other parties, and basically Parliament makes the laws, and the laws, since the inception of Canada in 1867, have had tremendous effect on the Metis Nation, and not necessarily always for the good. So Parliament is very important, all institutions of Parliament. This morning I did meet with the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, John Duncan, who is also what’s known as the Federal Interlocutor for Metis. And so we had a discussion about some of the activities we’ve been doing over the past two years with his predecessor, Minister Strahl, primarily on economic opportunities, economic development, some initiatives like the Juno Beach commemoration ceremony that we had last November, where there is now going to be a permanent display with respect to the Metis veterans’ contribution to world peace. So that, you know, is something that we have been doing over the past little while.

But I have a bigger agenda that I’d like to pursue with Parliament, and in fact have written to the former Prime Minister, Mr. Paul Martin, and to the current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, with respect to the big issues, such as the right of government, self-government, self-determination, the right to a land base, and that’s I suppose, when I mentioned earlier that Parliament has had an effect on the Metis, and I would think, a rather negative effect on the Metis, with respect to legislation passed in the 1800s, well, primarily 1879, which was the major one, where a system known as the scrip system was imposed on the Metis in terms of dealing with land rights. When the Metis provisional government in 1870 negotiated the entry of Manitoba into Confederation, under the leadership of Louis Riel, an accomodation was made with respect to land rights, and 1.4 million acres were set aside for the children of the Metis heads of families in the original province of Manitoba, which was called the ‘postage stamp province’ because it was 150 miles by 50 miles.

And there is a case working its way to the Supreme Court of Canada, whereby the Metis, the Manitoba Metis Federation, saying they didn’t get that promised land under Section 31 [of the Manitoba Act of 1870]. The two previous courts have ruled against them, so hopefully the Supreme Court of Canada is more favourable in its ruling. But based on that, to deal with the families, or the heads of families, the Dominion Lands Act in 1872 was amended to distribute scrip to the heads of families. And both of these initiatives worked towards the extinguishment of the unit title, preferred by the Metis. The term used at the time, of course, was ‘the halfbreeds.’ But we use the term ‘Metis’ now. And in 1879 it was expanded to include the Metis surrounding the original province of Manitoba, and basically the position of government now is that with the scrip system, and with several scrip commissions sent out, some starting I think with Treaty 8, where the commissioner was both the treaty commissioner and the scrip commissioner. And with that process the position of government, through their Department of Justice, is that whatever aboriginal rights and title the Metis had to land has been extinguished.

So that’s a big issue for us. But for the Metis in Alberta, there is no land base for the Metis within Canada. And in Alberta, in 1938, after a hearing into the issue, the provincial government set aside 12 large parcels of land for the Metis to live on. Eight of them have since been rescinded. Sorry, four have since been rescinded, eight are still in existence. They’re known as Metis settlements now, and there is provincial legislation dealing with Metis settlements and with governance on those Metis settlements. And so, again, but for that we have no land base. We were dispossessed by the system, and by and large, roughly speaking, about 240 acres per person were distributed, so-called, to the Metis population. But virtually, virtually all of it fell into hands of speculators, and so the Metis, as I say, became dispossessed.

So I did write, as I mention, to the former Prime Minister and to this Prime Minister, saying that we need to resolve this issue if the well-being of the Metis Nation is going to be dealt with, you know, the overall health of the Metis Nation, as a people, is going to be addressed and corrected. That we need to deal with this issue. And why I say that as well is, in 1994, the Metis of northwest Saskatchewan, the Metis Nation–Saskatchewan, and the Metis National Council filed a statement of claim in the court of Queen’s Bench in Saskatchewan, claiming continued aboriginal rights and title to all of the lands in northwest Saskatchewan — a statement or declaration to that effect — on the basis that the scrip system was such a sham that did not accomplish extinguishment of the aboriginal title rights of the Metis to those lands and resources. And that’s a test case. The problem is, we don’t have the necessary financing to engage the lawyers on a full-time basis to take this to court. A lot of research has taken place, but we anticipate a year-long trial, and so to engage lawyers to be involved in a year-long trial would be quite costly.

So we sought solutions. One of the solutions we offered to the government, both the Prime Minister and the previous Prime Minister is that they, who were the perpetrators of, or the persons that passed this legislation and imposed this system on us, should have the obligation to see whether that system validly extinguished our rights as a people. The onus should be on them, not on us. But we’re saying, if you choose not to do that, then, set up a commission, like to get a judicial decision, but if you choose not to do that, we have to take it to court to get the courts to decide, and set up a commission which will examine those issues and come up with recommendations at the end of the day, and failing that, then setting up a fund from which we can draw on to move it forward as a test case that we will drive, and that they will of course be participants in as, I suppose, as opposing our petitions. We haven’t had any full discussion on that yet, and that’s something we need to engage in.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: Now, you mentioned former Prime Minister Paul Martin. He hasn’t been prime minister in five years. Prime Minister Harper has been prime minister since. What kind of response have you gotten? You say you haven’t had a full discussion. That’s a long time then, that you’ve been knocking on the doors.

Clément Chartier: Yes well we did sign a protocol, the Metis Nation Protocol, September of 2008, and basically in it we’ve opened the opportunity to address that issue. But because of this government and its bent in a certain direction, we’ve been deaing mainly with economic opportunities and economic development, which are also sorely needed in our communities. So the rights agenda as such hasn’t been pushed as hard as it could be because it’s not going to necessarily be embraced fully. So we’re, I guess, biding our time, but…

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: You’re trying to work with the government on issues you can work with the government on?

Clément Chartier: That’s true, but we also want to work on this issue, and that one of the things I’ll be pushing next year, is to address some of these outstanding legal issues. And in fact, with the Prime Minister’s apology, June 11th 2008, I was there in the House of Commons, and responded to that apology, and of course it didn’t cover us, it didn’t cover those that attended Metis residential schools, because the federal government said “we weren’t resposible, we didn’t pay the clergy to run those for you, so you’re not covered.” But nevertheless, we are still, even so, still pushing all these other aspects and that’s one of them, that still needs to be addressed. But coming out of that apology, or lack thereof, for the Metis, we ended up with, a couple months later, the protocol which enabled us to address the outstanding issues of residential schools, also the outstanding issues with respect to Metis veterans who served in the wars, particularly in this case the Second World War. To this day it’s only the Metis veterans now that haven’t been dealt with properly by the state. Everybody else has, aboriginal and non-aboriginal, so that’s still another issue. But we did do the June 11th monument at Juno Beach last November, so that’s at least a step forward…

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: Right.

Clément Chartier: There are still issues unresolved. So I’m hoping to move to the land rights issues, hopefully through the next year or two.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: Right, now I’m looking at this protocol, which listeners should know is on the wall here on the office, and I see a lot of issues being set up for discussion: housing, child and family services, health, education, and training. A broad array of issues, and it was signed by the former minister, Chuck Strahl. But now, of course, there’s a new minister, have you, you said you’ve just met with the new minister, Minister Duncan. What kind of responses are you getting from the new minister?

Clément Chartier: Well, we had an hour-long meeting, and basically I walked through what we’ve done over the past two years with Minister Strahl, since we signed the protocol, and what led up to it, and we had a very good discussion on it, particularly emphasizing economic development, economic opportunities. And this agreement is also permissive in that we would like to draw in the five provinces, Ontario-West, within which the Metis homeland and those governments, by and large, coincide. And in fact we have been successful; we’ve had a Metis economic development symposium in Calgary, last December, where the aboriginal affairs minsters from Ontario-West, Minister Strahl, and our leadership got together for a political dinner between officials for two days of meetings, involving industry as well, and we’re going to have a follow-up meeting in January.

So in that sense it’s been doing good, that we’ve been getting this kind of engagement. And the minister this morning agreed that we would look at January 19th for the political dinner, the next two dates for our officials to meet, so he’s following up on what we developed with Minister Strahl, he doesn’t seem to be backing away from any of that. And I think our opportunities to work with him will be good. It’s hard to tell at this stage, but I get a good feeling that yes, we will continue with that momentum, and by and large because the Prime Minister as well has endorsed the Protocol and the relationship that we’re developing. We have letters from the Prime Minister, and so I think it’s an all-of-government approach with us where we’re making some small, incremental steps on the inssues, particularly economic development.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: It sounds like the relationship between the Metis and the government is different than the relationship between the First Nations and Inuit, and government; different issues, different approach. What do you think of that?

Clément Chartier: I’m not sure it’s different issues, but what it is, it is a different approach because, again, after 1870, particularly in the west, the government treated with the Metis differently than it did with the First Nations people. Treaty 1 was signed, I believe, in 1871. And in the meantime, with the Metis, who were looked at as individuals, and individual allotments were put in place with no guarantees of anything else. And with the treaty nations, of course, you have the treaties with guarantees in them, for land, for education, for assistance in times of need, you know, those kinds of things, and you have the Department of Indian Affairs, which is guided by the Indian Act. And even that, that is a big issue for us, and another one we’re trying to deal with, with my letters to the prime ministers, the former prime minister and this prime minister. In 1867, when Canada was formed, you have the federal powers under 91 [section 91 of the Constitution Act of 1867] and the provincial powers under [section] 92. The 24th head of power [section 91, subsection 24] for the federal government is “Indians, and the lands reserved for the Indians.” And the position of the federal government is that ‘Indians’ means Indians covered by the Indian Act. And in 1939 the Supreme Court of Canada said “no, ‘Indians’ includes Inuit.” There was a reference case. But the federal position is “yes OK, the term ‘Indians’ in 91-24 covers status or treaty Indians and the Inuit, but not the Metis, therefore Metis are a provincial responsibility.” The provinces said “no, Metis are a federal responsibility, constitutional Indians or Indians in the generic sense, ‘Indians’ and ‘aboriginal peoples’ having the same meaning.” And so that’s our position as well. And so it’s not that they’re necessarily responsible to run our lives, but it’s that they have the jurisdiction to deal with us on a government-to-government basis, so that we’re not divided up between five provinces and have five different kinds of regimes.

So that jurisdictional issue is still bedevilling us today. And so the federal position, by and large, for example, under health we have the First Nations and Inuit health branch, so the Metis aren’t covered there, except we have broken into it a bit since Prime Minister Paul Martin’s 2004 first ministers’ meeting on health. It brought us in to a small degree, but by and large we are excluded from a lot of the federal programs and services. Again, it’s based on that issue of jurisdiction and 91-24. So once they’ve dealt with us via the scrip system, and said our rights are gone, they just washed their hands off us. So that issue is one that we still need to resolve, and so that’s going to be an on-going issue, along with the land rights issue, it’s this whole jurisdictional issue.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: We’re talking about the future of the Metis in this podcast, and I wonder how the definition of the Metis Nation — you just explained it geographically, historically — how do you ensure the survival of that nation long into the future? Not just years or decades, but centuries?

Clément Chartier: Well, it’s not only our challenge, if I understand you correctly. The First Nations communities as well, I know several years ago the Assembly of First Nations mentioned that there — because of the Indian Act definitions — that there are two reserves in Manitoba that have already reached the point where there are no ‘Indians’ left, by definition, and that in the future most of the reserves or ‘the Indian people,’ by definition of the Indian Act, would disappear. So we have to move to, and we’ve done that, we’re going based on citizenship, not like “OK, you have so much Metis blood in you,” so to speak. It’s basically those that have a connection to the Metis Nation historically, and can prove that. And that’s really all that’s required to be a citizen. And our culture is getting stronger. We’re working hard to preserve the Michif language. And we’re working hard to aquire our rights to a land base, not that we expect a whole lot of people to move onto a land base, but at least those that do want to live on a land base, that they should have that opportunity. But they should also have opportunities to enter into partnerships with resource industries to develop areas that were traditionally our homelands. And be part of that economic mainstream. Not to pillage the land but to sustainably develop and make a livelihood for ourselves.

So I think basically it’s identifying with a culture and with a people, and I think that is growing stronger as opposed to weaker. And I think that will stay in place. And I think that will be the same thing for First Nations as well, as long as they move to their citizenship criteria, that they have the right to manage and control and deal with, rather than the federal government saying “this is who — the person that’s recognised by us.” I don’t see imminent danger of the Metis people and culture disappearing. Now, if it’s only based on being, you know, Metis is only someone with mixed blood, and over time that goes away, and they have no culture or history or anything to latch on to, then I could see that possibly happening with that sector of the Canadian population, but not with those that identify as a people and as a nation with a history and a culture, and basically, an existence. So I really see no danger in that. I can’t see that happening.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: Sure. Aboriginal education seems to be… there’s a lot of momentum gathering behind that. Inuit, First Nations, Metis leaders, including yourself, have all come out saying this needs to be on the national agenda. How can that contribute to the preservation and the celebration of the Metis Nation?

Clément Chartier: Well we’re looking at the capacity and the ability to be engaged in the education of our people, not necessarily outside of mainstream education as such, because we have a good track record in Saskatchewan. We have the Gabrial Dumont Institute, which is this year celebrating its 30th anniversary. And one of the programs under the Gabriel Dumont Institute is called SUNTEP (Saskatchewan Urban Native Teacher Education Program). And it’s graduated close to a thousand people, or teachers, with a Bachelor of Education. And so they’re instilled with their own values, of course. They know the culture, and of course they study the Metis history, and also the other prerequisites to become an educator. And so they can then go into the schools and impart that knowledge. And that’s been very helpful for us. They don’t all stay in the education field, some go off to do other things, but they still have that in-depth knowledge. And we also have, that’s GDI, we also have Dumont College which is affiliated with the University of Saskatchewan, and they offer some arts programs and things of that nature. And so it’s getting involved, not assimilated but intergrated, into that system, and getting our poeple into the system of education itself and also then into the communities. I know in my community, in Buffalo Narrows in northwest Saskatchewan, a lot of the teachers are now Metis, a lot of them are right from the community, whereas in the past, when I went to school, it was all outside non-aboriginal people coming in, into the schools. So I think we’ve come a long way in that respect. The Metis, however, don’t get the same degree of education assistance as the First Nations and Inuit. They probably don’t get enough as it is, but they do get some, which is beneficial. And we don’t hold that against them at all.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: Any final words for listeners?

Clément Chartier: Well, the Metis Nation has a lot of challenges, but we’ve also had some successes over the years, with different prime ministers, different political parties that have formed government over the years. We just continue to persevere and we believe that as a people we will continue to make movement forward. The big issue for us, though, is to address this whole issue of land and jurisdiction, just so that we can get back to the table to the same degree that other aboriginal peoples and nations are.

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