Audrey Poitras is confident that the decision to be rendered by the Medicine Hat Provincial Court in December will be a favourable one for Métis harvesters.
“Based on all the evidence put forth at trial, we believe that our history and Canada’s constitution support our harvesting rights,” said Poitras, president of the Métis Nation of Alberta, which bankrolled the 45-day trial for Ron Jones and Gary Hirsekorn, charged with hunting without a license in the Cypress Hills and Pincher Creek areas in 2008.
“We are saying that Sect. 35 (in the Canadian Constitution) as we understand it or what Powley says for Métis is what is protected in Aboriginal rights is the customs, practices and traditions,” said Jason Madden, co-counsel for MNA.
The Crown, Madden said, has a two-fold argument. First, that the Blackfoot, which inhabited the southern part of Alberta, was so fearful that nobody, including the Métis, tracked buffalo in that area.
“The province (is also) saying that a Métis community has to be a dot on the map,” Madden said.
At issue is a Sustainable Resource Development policy which recognizes eight Métis settlements and 17 communities. Permission to hunt and harvest can be obtained from the government but is restricted to 160 km in any direction around the Métis harvesters’ community. There are a number of other limitations set under the policy.
Another “pretty significant new dynamic to the case,” said Madden is that one of the harvesters on trial hails from Manitoba, although he now resides in Medicine Hat, so a strong ruling by Judge Tim Fisher could see provincial borders done away with for Métis harvesters, allowing them to cross the plains in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the traditional roaming grounds of buffalo.
“We’re recognizing that we’re asking the court to go further in this case than they have in past cases,” said Madden.
The verdict was to be rendered late October, but the decision has been delayed until Dec. 1. Madden presumed the delay was due to the length of the trial, the over 1,000 documents that were presented and the number of expert witnesses who testified. He said it’s the largest case he and co-counsel Jean Teillet have dealt with although they have represented Métis harvesters in Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
Whatever the decision, Madden doesn’t expect it to be clear cut.
“There will be nuances in it and we’ll have to go review it to understand what the court is saying,” said Madden.
If the court finds in favour of Jones and Hirkeson, it will be a “huge win for the Métis,” said Madden, who wouldn’t speculate if the Crown would appeal.
However, Madden was adamant that if the ruling went against Jones and Hirkeson, the MNA will appeal.
“If the trial judge doesn’t feel the law supports where we believe the law needs to go, our clients will definitely have to appeal this case to have these issues resolved,” said Madden.
There are 25 other Métis harvesters in Alberta who are up on similar charges and who are awaiting the results of this case. Madden said the genealogy of all the Métis awaiting trial has been proven and he will be representing them, once more paid by the MNA.