Supreme Court sides with historic Métis land claim
OTTAWA—The Métis have won a major victory in a land dispute more than a century in the making.
The way the federal government handed out land to children of the Manitoba Métis in the 1870s failed to live up to its constitutional obligations, the Supreme Court of Canada said today in a 6-2 ruling.
“So long as the issue remains outstanding, the goal of reconciliation and constitutional harmony . . . remains unachieved,” they wrote.
“The ongoing rift in the national fabric . . . remains unremedied.
“The unfinished business of reconciliation of the Métis people with Canadian sovereignty is a matter of national and constitutional import,” they argued.
The decision opens the door for the Métis to negotiate a claim to vast tracts of land in the province, including all of present-day Winnipeg.
“They’ve won a great victory, and I think they’ve shown that there is every reason for negotiations now to remedy a historic wrong,” said former judge Thomas Berger, who represented the Manitoba Métis Federation.
“That’s what Canada is all about,” he stressed. “We don’t leave a trail of historical wreckage behind us as we move from one decade to another.”
Berger characterized the decision as a clear signal that the time has come to sit down and negotiate a new deal.
“The Supreme Court has intervened and said as long as this issue has not been dealt with, there cannot be reconciliation between Canada and the Manitoba Métis,” he said.
“That, it seems to me, is a call for negotiations.”
The ruling marks the second time in recent months that the courts have sided with the Métis in high-profile cases.
A Federal Court ruling brought Métis and non-status Indians into the ranks of people considered “Indians” under the Constitution.
The Conservative government is appealing that decision, which—if left to stand—would vastly expand Ottawa’s responsibilities for aboriginal peoples.
Today’s decision, which comes after a legal dispute dating back three decades, stems from a historic deal that ultimately made Manitoba Canada’s fifth province.
The Manitoba Métis Federation claimed the federal government never lived up to its obligation to set aside land for the children of the Métis of the Red River Settlement.
As part of the 1870 deal that created the province of Manitoba, the federal government of the day promised 5,565 square km of land would be set aside for the 7,000 children of the Métis.
The Manitoba Act helped to quell the Red River Rebellion—fought by Métis struggling to hold on to their land as white settlers began to arrive.
But Ottawa botched the distribution of land. Soon new settlers began arriving in waves and speculators snapped up much of the land for a fraction of its value.
The Manitoba Métis Federation argued it amounted to a failure by the federal government to look after the interests of the Métis children and a betrayal of the land grant’s intent.
The Supreme Court agreed.
“The federal Crown failed to implement the land grant provision . . . in accordance with the honour of the Crown,” the decision said.
The Crown “acted with persistent inattention and failed to act diligently to achieve the purposes” of the land-grant agreement, it added.
Government lawyers had countered that the Métis lawsuit was filed far too long after the land deal, and that Ottawa did not actually violate its side of the agreement.
Meanwhile, Métis groups from across the country say the decision will affect other provinces.
“This is about, certainly, more than the Métis people of Manitoba,” said Gary Lipinski of the Métis Nation of Ontario.
“They’re our brothers and sisters, but it has implications for Métis people right across our homeland,” he noted.
“We hope that, obviously, with the positive outcome of this case, the federal government will now look to see how we’re going to deal with Métis historic grievances that are throughout the Métis homeland,” Lipinski added.