A federal court has issued a landmark ruling recognizing Métis people and non-status Indians as Indians under the Constitution Act.
The Honourable Michael L. Phelan of the Federal Court Trial Division issued a declaration last week that the federal government has exclusive legislative jurisdiction over Métis and non-status Indians as well as a fiduciary duty.
The ruling has been 13 years in the making. The lawsuit was launched by Harry Daniels, a founding member of the Métis Society of Saskatchewan, in 1999.
Essentially, it means Metis and non-status Indians could be entitled to the same benefits and programs that status Indians are entitled to under section 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867.
“Last week was a good week for Métis people,” said Métis Nation – Saskatchewan President Robert Doucette.
“(This) is a historic opportunity for both the Métis and the federal government to sit down and negotiate what flows from this declaration,” he added.
Doucette said while the declaration is still preliminary, it could mean Métis and non-status Indians would have access to three significant benefits.
For one, they would be able to negotiate with the federal government to designate specific parcels of land as Métis lands.
“Right now, Métis don’t have access to the specific and comprehensive land claims process,” he said. “So that’s a problem, because we do have claims.”
Specifically, he said this could result in land claims in Northern Saskatchewan, especially in and around the Village of Green Lake.
Second on Doucette’s list is the ability for Métis and non-status Indians to negotiate the capacity to govern themselves, much like First Nations and Inuit communities.
“We don’t receive government-to-government capacity to run the regions or the locals,” Doucette noted. “And that’s an issue, because if we’re going to meet and talk about all the things … it takes resources.”
Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, is potential access to a wide range of programs and services offered to First Nations and Inuit people. For example, the ability to apply for funding for four years of post-secondary schooling.
“They might be open to all of the host of programs and services currently there for housing, employment, education, health, lands and resources and governing capacity,” Doucette said. “The potential is there.”
The decision is still preliminary and new rights have yet to be granted to anyone. It simply means that although Métis and non-status Indians are excluded from The Indian Act, they now have the ability to negotiate for similar rights.
The federal government could still appeal the decision. It’s unclear what financial impact the ruling could have if the government is forced to recognize potentially thousands of new claims for entitlements.
For Doucette, the ruling is personal.
He recalls how his elderly grandmother died due to an illness she contracted after living in a mold-infested home. He believes her death could have been prevented if she had access to the same health services available to Aboriginal people with treaty status.
“If she had access to the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch services, she might still be alive today,” Doucette said. “But because Métis don’t have access to that, we’re falling through the cracks.”