Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ottawa's new duty to Métis

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The federal government and the Métis people have not had a very active or close relationship, but that's going to change following a landmark decision by the Supreme Court of Canada that ruled Ottawa did not fulfil its obligations to the mixed-blood peoples of the Red River Settlement in the 1870s.

It was not total victory, but the ruling on Métis land claims is still a major triumph that will compel Ottawa, and probably Manitoba, too, to sit down and resolve what is now officially a historic wrong.

The decision follows an earlier decision by the Federal Court of Canada that said the Métis qualify as aboriginals under the Constitution and, therefore, are entitled to the same rights and benefits as status Indians.

Nearly 32 years after legal action was started, the Supreme Court partially reversed two earlier decisions by Manitoba courts and ruled the federal government failed to ensure the Métis received all the land they were entitled to under the Manitoba Act of 1870, which created the province.

The ruling involves complex legal arguments, but it and the earlier rulings are worth reading by anyone interested in understanding how the federal government tried, and partially succeeded, to bring the Métis into the Canadian nation following the Riel Resistance of 1869.

The court rejected several declarations sought by the Manitoba Metis Federation, which launched the action, but it found the federal Crown "did not work diligently to fulfil its constitutional promise to the Métis, as the honour of the Crown required."

It was not so much a question of bad faith as it was a lack of urgency that resulted in many Métis children not receiving their full birthright.

Justice Marshall Rothstein, one of two dissenting voices on the court, said he was concerned the ruling imposed new obligations on the Crown with consequences that are "impossible to predict."

"As a result of the majority's reasons, the government's liability to aboriginal peoples has the potential to be expanded in unforeseen ways," he wrote.

The court, however, has spoken, even if it was mute about some critical questions.

Some of the land in question, for example, includes Winnipeg's most valuable properties along the Red River, which could be worth billions of dollars, depending on how the amount and value of the lands might be determined.

MMF president Dave Chartrand, however, has said the Métis have no intention of taking anyone's land, assuming anyone could even determine which lands should have been delivered to them. Much of the land was properly distributed, but not all of it.

The MMF didn't ask the court to rule on compensation, but it clearly expects something in return. Otherwise, there would have been no point to 32 years of legal quarrels.

Mr. Chartrand has said he merely wants governments "to work with us" to address the historic wrong and to create "a renewed partnership" between the Métis and other Canadians.

Indeed, it would be appropriate for someone in Ottawa to acknowledge Friday's ruling, issue an apology and pledge to work with the Métis on ways to redress the historic injustice.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Gerald Flood, Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 9, 2013 A14

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