An improved relationship with government was put in motion for regional Métis last week with the signing of a charter between the Sunset Country Métis and the Métis Nation of Ontario.
"This gives us more autonomy within the MNO and draws us all together. It gives us a stronger voice," said SCM president Dorothy Huitikka, who put her name to the charter along with MNO president Tony Belcourt during a special ceremony Thursday night at Nanicost.
"It’s a wonderful thing. This is a strong community of people who know who they are [and] I’m proud of what’s gone on here," enthused Belcourt.
Included in the benefits that come from the signing will be easier access at the local level to government funding for things like Métis employment and training initiatives, education, and health care.
The MNO recently signed a regional bi-lateral agreement worth about $6.7 million annually with Human Resources Development Canada to devolve Métis employment and training directly to its affiliates.
Sunset Country Métis represents a geographical area of more than 8,700 sq. miles that encompasses communities from Atikokan to Rainy River, including Nestor Falls and Morson.
The terms of the charter had been under negotiation by the SCM council since its inception here in 1994, said Huitikka. That time was used to address area Métis rights issues that would remain protected within the wording of the agreement.
"The biggest hurdle was to ensure [that]," she noted.
Local resident Gary Lipinski, one of nine regional councillors on the MNO’s provisional council, agreed the Métis community in this area came into the charter agreement with some historical concerns.
In 1873, the Métis of the district signed an adhesion to Treaty #3, conferring the same rights on them as with other aboriginal peoples.
"The concerns were that in signing the charter, we would not give up any rights that already existed in the adhesion agreement," Lipinski said.
"Local council took this job very seriously to ensure that rights taken on over 100 years ago remained in place," he added. "We are part of a huge, huge, picture."
Lipinski said whenever a smaller group gets into a working relationship with a larger organization, there is a fear that you will be swallowed into that and lose your individualism.
"Then you become a small voice in a large picture. But that’s not the [case] here," he stressed. "Now we are a larger voice united."
Meanwhile, Belcourt said Métis communities and their councils at every level must continue to have the long-term goal of addressing recognition by Ottawa of Métis rights as they are stated in the Constitutional Act, 1982.
In it, the Métis are acknowledged as a distinct people with aboriginal rights.
Belcourt also referred to the recent report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples which stated the Métis had been unjustly and unreasonably withheld from the same services and opportunities available to other aboriginals.
"We’re not third on the rung. If the government is going to be entering into agreements with other aboriginal peoples then why not Métis?" he wondered.