Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Manitobans must right these wrongs

Reparations to Métis long past due

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Legal experts Charles Huband and Thomas Berger have argued the case for and against Métis land claims on these pages, and most Canadians would have difficulty disagreeing with either of these esteemed jurists because their arguments are both so well-researched and reasoned.

The problem is the true meaning of justice is often betrayed by legal intricacies and interpretations, and the laws of the land leave plenty of room for injustice. Do we really want Canadian history to be defined by who had the best lawyer and which group is most able to twist the law to serve its best interests?

Sometimes we are better off by taking a look at the bigger picture and then simply asking ourselves, "What do we want Canada to stand for, and how do we, as Canadians, want to be perceived?" If we want Canada to be known as a just society and our citizens to be recognized as fair and kind, then we have to face up to a fact which has been mostly hidden or ignored. When it comes to the history of the Métis in this province, "ethnic cleansing" took place and we need to find a way to make it right.

The treatment of Métis people in this province after the Manitoba Act was passed in 1870 is quite similar to how Jews were treated in Germany after Adolf Hitler and the Nazis assumed absolute power in 1933.

At that time, Jews who could foresee the grave persecution that was to follow tried to sell their homes and businesses for whatever they could get and get out of Germany as fast as they could. Most of the transactions were unfair, but it was a "fire sale" (before those homes and businesses were actually put to the torch).

Was this fair? Of course not. Was it legal? According to the "law" (or political circumstances) at the time, it was. It was ethnic cleansing that would grow to become genocide and end up being a holocaust. All three stages of this inhumanity are horrid and horribly wrong.

Here in the Red River Valley in 1870, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald recognized a mass influx of settlers onto land inhabited by the Métis would create conflict.

Macdonald was also made aware that rich and unscrupulous settlers might out-compete the locals for prime land so he promised the Métis 1.4 million acres of land to be given to their children so they could get a "head start" against the superior technology and wealth the settlers were bringing to Manitoba.

But the distribution system for the land was completely flawed, and there was so much bureaucracy and delay in handing over lands, that those Métis children ended up lagging behind.

But more important, a "reign of terror" took place which, at least, draws comparison to ethnic cleansing as we have come to know it during recent world history, and by its very definition.

Ethnic cleansing is the process or policy of eliminating unwanted ethnic or religious groups by forcible displacement with the intent of creating a territory inhabited by people of a homogeneous or pure ethnicity, religion, culture and history.

Métis men were beaten and slain, Métis women were beaten, raped and killed, their homes were burned to the ground and there was general persecution of Métis (and "half-breeds") all around, as described in historian Lawrie Barkwell's book The Reign of Terror Against the Métis.

Many chose to flee their homelands.

I am not claiming these terrorist acts took place at the size and rate of the Holocaust, which followed initial attempts at ethnic cleansing by the Nazis, but there was persecution here in Manitoba on a scale large enough that it is only recently the Métis have reassumed the pride they proclaim today.

Métis were eventually provided with "scrip," a quasi-deed to lands that remained available after the 1880s and '90s "scoops." Many chose to sell their scrip for whatever they could get -- sound familiar? And often the head of a Métis household was provided with four pieces of scrip, a scrip for each child, in four distant locations in the new province.

This would end up scattering what were close, tightly knit Métis families, and that was, of course, unacceptable.

Most Canadians want to be seen as tolerant, compassionate and fair people, and when you recognize the fact ethnic cleansing did take place in the case of the Métis, there is a lot of work to do to make things right.

When you break somebody's else's fence, you begin the reconciliation process by feeling remorse and saying you are sorry. The process becomes complete (and sincere) when you help fix the fence.

It is too late to give those Métis children the head start they were promised, but it is not too late to help the Métis people of Manitoba catch up.

We can do that by providing the resources Métis people need to achieve social and economic justice and equality.


Don Marks is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 10, 2013 0


Updated on Tuesday, September 10, 2013 at 7:40 AM CDT: Corrects spelling of Métis

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