In the spirit of reconciliation and reclaiming land, David Chartrand announced Tuesday the Manitoba Metis Federation has an agreement to purchase the iconic Bank of Montreal building at Portage and Main in Winnipeg.
Along with being president of the federation, Chartrand is its minister of economic development and land claims.
The plan is to develop the city-designated historic site, which the bank vacated in 2019, as the Métis Nation Heritage Centre. The federation chose May 12 for the announcement because it is the day 150 years ago that the Manitoba Act received royal assent. Métis leader Louis Riel is widely known as the Father of Manitoba.
"We are celebrating this anniversary with the announcement that BMO and MMF, as partners in reconciliation, are moving forward together," Chartrand said.
"Reconciliation is about making real change through practical accomplishments. Today’s milestone of reconciliation shows the leading role that can be played by the private financial sector."
Leah LaPlante, vice-president of the federation’s Southwestern region, with her office in Brandon, said the newly acquired building will be one of the crown jewels in the Métis homeland.
"The beauty of what happened today in Winnipeg for the Métis in the Southwest region is that the Métis have been a family, groups of families, who have been hanging out together for two or three hundred years. We still like to hang out together and move forward together," she said.
"So every Métis, not only in the province of Manitoba, I would hope across the western homeland, will be very, very proud that their National Métis Heritage Centre is going to be right in the middle of the old Red River Settlement, right where it should be."
LaPlante said Métis have struggled. Chartrand said the same in his announcement. While Riel is now recognized for his role in Manitoba’s formation, he has long been vilified as a traitor and worse. Métis as a people, historically, have been vilified.
"To be able to sit in Manitoba today in 2020, 150 years after the Métis were right in the middle of forming the province of Manitoba, feels pretty good to me," LaPlante said.
"I’ve been one of the ones who’ve been on the front lines most of my life. I was involved at the age of 16. Fifty years have passed."
LaPlante recalls the days, back in 1967, when the federation was formed, when people had to borrow gas money to get to meetings. That hard work, she said, is coming home.
"Every one of those grandchildren of the founders, every one of us, we just all have to be walking tall today. That’s all I can say — walking tall," she said.
"The Métis Nation has a lot of history, a lot of history that most Manitobans don’t know. A lot of Métis don’t even know their own history over the years. This is going to be a destination for all peoples, I would hope."
For its part, the bank said part of its purpose is to help create a more inclusive society.
"The Métis have a rich history in Winnipeg, and we couldn’t have found a better partner to pass on the legacy of this building," said John MacAulay, regional president of Prairies central.
In January, following an incident at a Vancouver branch where an Indigenous man and his granddaughter were handcuffed while trying to open an account, the bank established an Indigenous Advisory Council with members from Indigenous communities across Canada.
The Manitoba Metis Federation has a seat on the council.
Located on the southeast corner of Portage Avenue and Main Street, the building was designed by America’s leading neoclassicists McKim, Mead, & White, with assistance from Winnipeg architect J.N. Semmens, according to the Heritage Winnipeg website. Construction began in 1910 and the building opened in 1913 at a cost of $1,295,000, which translates to $29,482,833 in 2020.
Chartrand said the purchase agreement with the Bank of Montreal is confidential at this time and did not disclose the cost to the federation. He did say it would be disclosed at a later date.
"I said it in my speeches before. I said, if we have to buy one acre at a time to get back our land, we will," Chartrand said in an address to Métis.
"One point four million acres of land was stolen from us. We went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. We won that case. And we are negotiating right now with Canada for a settlement to that."
Chartrand also said Riel’s footprints likely remained in the ground beneath the newly acquired historic building.
"Your Métis families probably walked through the streets here," he said.
"I can’t wait till you come through these doors. I can’t wait to see your flag flying right downtown at Main and Portage. I know each of you will smile as you drive by and see your beautiful flag, the Metis Federation flag, flying, proudly recapturing some of your history, some of your land."
» Michele LeTourneau covers Indigenous matters for The Brandon Sun under the Local Journalism Initiative, a federally funded program that supports the creation of original civic journalism.
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