The question of Métis identity has befuddled Canadians, governments and the courts ever since Louis Riel occupied Upper Fort Garry in 1869 and established a provisional government. Just who were these troublemakers, who had their own language, customs and practices, and who now claimed territorial rights?
Well, they weren't First Nations and they weren't Europeans, and they weren't merely "half-breeds," but a relatively new nation born in the fur-trading culture of 18th-century North America.
That was probably good enough, as definitions go, until 1982 when the Canadian Constitution guaranteed legal rights to aboriginal peoples, including the Métis, but left it to the courts to sort out those rights. Obviously, if they had rights, whatever those rights were, it mattered who and what was a Métis.
The issue took on increasing importance when the Manitoba Métis launched a legal challenge in the 1980s for ownership of land along the Red and Assiniboine rivers, a historic land claim that is still before the courts.
Then, in 2003, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled two Métis men were within their rights when they violated Ontario law and bagged a moose. This implied the Métis had, or could claim, harvesting rights in their traditional lands. The question, that same old question, however, of who is a Métis and where are their ancestral homes, was left unanswered.
Since then, the national Métis council and the provincial Métis associations in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario have agreed on a definition. Métis, they claim, means a person who self-identifies as Métis, traces his or her roots to the historic Métis ancestral homeland, is distinct from other aboriginals and is accepted by the Métis nation.
The definition may seem too vague for some Canadians, but it's their definition and they are the only people capable of making such a determination. That's why Métis leaders were upset when they learned the federal government seemed to be meddling in the process.
As it turns out, Ottawa is issuing a contract to the Canadian Standards Association to ensure the Métis provincial groups are using reliable and consistent methods to register and verify their membership.
The federal government may have been clumsy in the way it handled the matter, but it was not wrong to want assurances that the process for inclusion in the Métis nation is valid. In Manitoba, for example, people seeking Métis identity must use one of two genealogical societies to trace their roots to a historic Métis community.
The Métis have yet to answer the question of where their historical lands are located, although they are broadly situated in Western Canada and parts of Ontario.
The questions of who is Métis, how do you become one, and where are their ancestral lands are not idle historical problems. If the Métis can claim resources and the right to hunt, fish and gather food all year without a licence, then they might also have a right to negotiate with the private sector and governments on how those resources are used.
At least, that's how they see it, and that's why it's important to ensure the Métis people, the government and Canadians in general are playing from the same fiddle.