OTTAWA — The head of the Manitoba Métis Federation is heralding the future of his people after the Supreme Court ruled Friday the federal government failed to live up to its obligations to the Métis people in Manitoba more than 140 years ago.
David Chartrand said he is waiting by the phone for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to call and begin negotiating how to address the decision, which deals with how 1.4 million acres of land was distributed to Métis children as promised by Canada in the Manitoba Act of 1870.
“Our time has come,” said Chartrand. “This day will forever be marked as a new beginning.”
The case is likely worth millions of dollars in compensation to the Métis in Manitoba, though Chartrand was unwilling to put any dollar figure on the negotiations Friday, saying he didn’t want to negotiate in public.
Chartrand said if one imagines how successful the Métis would have been had they not been shut out of the land promised to them, one can see how significant this case is to the Métis.
The MMF spent more than $5 million fighting this case, which was first filed in 1981. After years of negotiations with Canada went nowhere, the MMF went to court asking for a declaration that the Crown had not lived up to its fiduciary responsibility, or the honour of the Crown, when it doled out land to more than 7,000 Métis children between 1870 and 1885. It also argued the province of Manitoba had violated the Constitution when it passed several laws dealing with the doling out of the land.
The land was promised in section 31 of the Manitoba Act of 1870, in return for the Red River settlers agreeing to become part of Canada. It was part of a negotiation led by Louis Riel.
Both a lower court and the Manitoba Court of Appeal ruled against the MMF.
However Friday, in a 6-2 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed the appeal on the fiduciary duty and said the claims against the province were not dealt with because those laws had long since been repealed.
However, it ruled in favour of the MMF on the third claim.
“Although the honour of the Crown obliged the government to act with diligence to fulfil section 31, it acted with persistent inattention and failed to act diligently to achieve the purposes of the section 31 grant,” reads the ruling. “This was not a matter of occasional negligence, but of repeated mistakes and inaction that persisted for more than a decade, substantially defeating a purpose of section 31.”
The court found the purpose of section 31 was to “give the Métis a head start in the race for land and a place in the new province. This required that the grants be made while a head start was still possible.”
However, by the time the land was actually doled out, most of the best land was already taken by settlers and the head start had evaporated.
It took more than 10 years for the Crown to make the allotments of land and 15 years for the Métis children who did not receive land to receive money instead.
The money was based on 1879 land prices, which by 1885 could not buy nearly the same amount of land as the children were supposed to have received.
Tom Berger, the lawyer representing the MMF, said it is a historic ruling.
“This is a call for the federal government to negotiate with the MMF to deal with an historical wrong,” Berger said.
Shouts of joy filled the grand entrance hall and echoed through the hallways of the Supreme Court building in Ottawa as members of the Manitoba Métis Federation absorbed the news of the decision Friday morning.
“It is a proud, proud day,” said Chartrand. “I’m sure Louis Riel must be smiling down on us today.”
The MMF is not seeking to reclaim the land that would have gone to the Métis children if section 31 had been fulfilled as promised.
Most of that land is in private hands in what is now the City of Winnipeg. Instead, the MMF is looking for land or a cash settlement that would not involve booting people from their homes.
A spokesman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said the federal government is reviewing the ruling.
“The Government of Canada will continue to work with Métis people to improve their quality of life and we remain committed to working together to improve the quality of life for all Aboriginal peoples in Canada,” said Jason MacDonald.
Manitoba Conservative MP Rod Bruinooge, who is Métis himself, welcomed the decision as a big day for Canada, Manitoba and his own family.
“This is an important chapter in Manitoba’s and Canada’s history,” Bruinooge said.
He said he expects the government will act quickly to respond.
“I’m certain the government is going to take this ruling to heart,” Bruinooge said.
“I think there will be an open process to consult with the MMF.”
Manitoba Justice Minister Andrew Swan said the province respects the ruling.
“The decision provides an opportunity for all of the involved parties to move forward with a more collaborative approach. The decision expects nothing less,” he said.
» Winnipeg Free Press
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition March 9, 2013