The People Who Own Themselves

National Post Jen Gerson Jan 26, 2013

Métis have long fared better than status Indians, so why do they want to be treated the same?

The Métis have been known by many names; one of them, said Métis National Council president Clem Chartier, was “Otimpemsuak.” It was a Cree word, he said, and it meant “the people who own themselves.”

The descendants of European fur traders who married native women in the 18th century, Métis have always boasted a distinct, and rebellious culture; they championed Canada’s early uprisings under Louis Riel in 1869 and 1885.

Although the Métis played a singular role in Canada’s early history, their status in the country’s legal framework has been a decades-long controversy. This month’s ruling in Federal Court found that Métis, along with non-status Indians, were considered Indians under the law, which places them under federal jurisdiction.

The full impacts of the decision — including the extent and breadth of the government’s fiduciary responsibility to the Métis — is likely to be unknown for years to come. The federal government said it is reviewing the decision.

Métis people hope the ruling opens the door for land claims, self governance and possibly the other health care and educational privileges promised to other First Nations. Now, they said, the government will not be able to ignore them.

The mystery remains why the Métis would even want the government’s attention in the first place. From residential schools to the current state of the reserve system, ample evidence suggests Canada’s historic attempts to regulate, oversee and care for aboriginal people have been disastrous.

The impacts of its long-term policies are felt to this day. Natives, including Métis, fare worse than non-native Canadians on almost every single socioeconomic and health indicator.

But without status or federal oversight, the Métis are already doing much better than status Indians (according to Statistics Canada data from the 2006 census, there are about 700,000 First Nations and 390,000 Métis people).

Métis live two years longer and are better educated. They are more likely to have received a trade certificate (16% for Métis to 13% for status Indians), college diploma (22% to 18%) or university degree (9% to 7%).

‘Our ancestors made a conscious decision in the late 1800s. They refused to be under that system. They were always known as the people who owned themselves’

Métis have a median income of almost $30,000, compared to the First Nations median of about $20,000; they had an employment rate of almost 75%, compared to 60% for other aboriginal populations. Métis are also far less likely to report living in homes in need of major repair than those living on reserves.

The reasons for this are complicated, experts say; most Métis don’t fall under the auspices of the Indian Act, which once limited movement off reserves, and continues to hamper economic development in impoverished First Nations communities.

“It’s fair to say that Métis, by virtue of essentially being forced to integrate into urban centres, naturally had better access to services and opportunities than on isolated reserves,” said Jason Madden, the lead council for the Métis National Council. “The Métis populations in Edmonton, Calgary or urban centres, their statistics bear out identically to First Nations who live in urban areas as well.”

Although the Métis have never been granted the same financial benefits as status Indians, they’ve also managed to avoid some of the pitfalls wired into the Indian Act.

“Our ancestors made a conscious decision in the late 1800s. They refused to be under that system. They were always known as the people who owned themselves and the people who were bosses of themselves,” Mr. Chartier said.

Many Canadians confuse the term “Métis” with anyone who has mixed aboriginal and European ancestry; the term adopted by the national council is more exact, and conforms to a decade-old Supreme Court of Canada ruling. To be recognized by a provincial Métis body, a person must show he or she is descended from one of the families that settled in a historic Métis colony.

‘There were far higher levels of Métis living in urban spaces at the turn of the century than most people [had] given them credit for’

Métis have provincial governing bodies in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. These have successfully negotiated for recognition, support and hunting and gathering rights with their respective provincial governments.

The majority of Métis now live in the booming western provinces, with several settlements in northern Alberta, which explains, in part, their relative success.

Chris Andersen, director of the Rupertsland Centre for Métis Research in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta said Métis’ tie to the fur trade led to settlement in what became economic hubs.

“Many of the Métis people living in these areas were living here before they were cities,” he said. “There were far higher levels of Métis living in urban spaces at the turn of the century than most people [had] given them credit for.”

This proximity to cities continues to give the Métis improved access to health care and economic opportunities.

While the early Indian Act trapped status Indians on reserves, Métis — while still subject to the racism of the era — could move around and find work as wage labourers at the turn of the 20th century, he added.

Those conditions fostered a distinct and independent culture, one that won’t be threatened by the Federal Court’s recent ruling, Mr.. Madden said.

“We don’t want to be wards of the state. Economic independence has always been extremely important to [the Métis]. By our very nature, we’re an entrepreneurial people.”

Both Mr. Madden and Mr. Chartier said Métis have no desire to be governed by the Indian Act; they hope to negotiate another path, one that recognizes the Métis nation, without subjecting it to the law’s harmful provisions.

“We don’t have a sense of entitlement, as such, and we don’t have a great dependence on other governments but ourselves, but we do have a long way to go,” Mr. Chartier said.

The president said the Métis would like to have some kind of federally recognized self-governing land base, but said this would be distinct from a reserve.

“There’s a need for transfer payments to our governments for the resources they are taking from our traditional territories,” he added.

Mr. Madden said he hopes the ruling is one step that will eventually lead to the closing of the socioeconomic gap that still exists between Métis and non-aboriginal Canadians.

“No one is saying: ‘Let’s replicate the Indian Act system because that’s worked so well,” the lawyer said. He hopes the ruling will open the door for negotiations, but expects Métis self government to look very different from the type of rule that has long shadowed First Nations reserves.

“What you really have is a more balanced discussion about how do we close that gap that is there between the Métis and the general public in a way that doesn’t say ‘Let’s replicate the Indian Act,’ which was no solution.”

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