The identity debate for Métis people is not a new occurrence. Confusion over who is Métis has been relevant since the beginning of colonization.
The federal government’s aim after 1885 was for Métis to eventually be absorbed into the mainstream fabric of Canadian society, thereby forfeiting their Aboriginal rights.
However, this has not been the case, as Métis people have become stronger in reclaiming their identity and membership. In 1982, the Métis people had their Aboriginal rights and identity recognized and affirmed by section 35 of the repatriated Canadian Constitution Act.
Even though their identity as Aboriginal people in Canada was recognized, it has never defined who was Métis for the purpose of accessing these rights.
In 2003, the Powley case was the first to test Métis rights in section 35 at the Supreme Court level. The court established a criterion for determining members of the Métis community for the purpose of accessing their rights in section 35.
This definition was later adopted by the five provincial Métis affiliations and the Métis National Council in a homeland that stems from Ontario to B.C.
Another decision, in Blais (2003) at the Supreme Court level, claimed that Métis were not considered Indians under the Indian Act for hunting and fishing purposes, therefore adding to their unique identity as Métis citizens.
That is why it is shocking that a branch of INAC (the Office of the Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians) has awarded a contract of between $50,000 to $100,000 to the Ottawa-based Canadian Standards Association (CSA) to create a unified system for determining Métis status.
This of course has not gone over well with Métis organizations throughout Canada, who have fought hard for the inherent right to form their membership and identity criterion.
David Chartrand, President of the Manitoba Métis Federation told CBC news that a watered-down definition of who is Métis could dramatically impact the progress Métis people have made in being recognized as a distinct group of people, developing governance and economic opportunities, as well as sharing in the prosperity of the country.
Métis Elder Rod McLeod was also disappointed in hearing this news. “It comes as a shock to hear about this, I believe that INAC never consulted the Métis and that it is not up to INAC to determine Métis membership, which is the responsibility of the Métis National Council and the Provincial organizations”.
INAC Minister John Duncan attempted to calm fears it seemed, claiming that the federal government has no intention of deciding who is and who is not Métis. Rather, the CSA has been given the task to develop a verification strategy for Métis identification systems.
INAC wants a verification system that would measure how accurate the memberships of the five different provincial organizations are with that of the criteria listed in the Powley decision.
Duncan said they want to work together with Métis organizations, so that they can get a more accurate estimation of Métis membership.
These responses have not placed Chartrand at ease, or many other Canadian Métis that have heard of this identification initiative.
“The contract with CSA was never discussed with Métis leaders,” said Chartrand. “And it has caused fear that the government plans to step in and make changes to how the Métis nations in Canada define their membership”.
The current Métis Nation of Canada definition claims that a Métis is a person who self-identifies as Métis; is distinct from other Aboriginal peoples and is accepted by the Métis nation; and must be a descendant from the ‘historic Métis homeland’, which is the area of land in west central North America.
There is currently a lot of confusion about the intentions of INAC. This has created fear that Métis membership in Canada will be determined by the federal government, just like First Nations status under the Indian Act.
In that case, proper consultation and dialogue must continue with Métis leaders, elders and communities to understand these intentions.