Canadian government lost court case and must recognize Metis as “Indigenous” under the constitution

BREAKING DOWN A LANDMARK DECISION

What legal document does this case refer to?

The Manitoba Act of 1870, which brought Manitoba into Confederation. The Red River settlers, the majority of whom were French-speaking, Roman Catholic Métis, feared the influx of Protestant and English-speaking settlers. After surveyors from Canada were met with armed resistance, the Métis, led by Louis Riel, negotiated the creation of Manitoba. In return for the settlers agreeing to lay down their arms and become part of Canada, Canada agreed, in Section 31 of the Manitoba Act, to provide 566,000 hectares (1.4 million acres) of land to Métis children.

What was the problem?

The distribution of the land was fraught with problems. There were mistakes made determining the number of Métis children, resulting in 993 children not getting any land. It took 10 years to distribute the land, and much of the best land was already gone by the time the land was distributed. The plots, about 100 hectares per child, were distributed randomly, and siblings within families were often allotted land several hundred kilometres from each other. The 993 children who didn’t receive land eventually received money instead, but the amount was based on outdated prices and could no longer purchase 100 hectares of land by the time it was distributed.

What did the Manitoba Metis Federation want in this case?

This case is not about granting money or land to the Métis people. The Métis asked the courts for a declaration that Canada reneged on its fiduciary obligation to the Métis people of Manitoba; that it violated the honour of the Crown in doing so, and that certain bills passed by the Government of Manitoba between 1870 and 1880 were unconstitutional.

What did the Supreme Court say?

After both the Manitoba Court of Appeal and the lower court in Manitoba rejected the MMF claims, the Supreme Court ruled Friday the Crown “failed to implement the land-grant provision set out in Section 31 of the Manitoba Act, 1870 in accordance with the honour of the Crown.” The claim regarding fiduciary duty was dismissed. The claim about the provincial statutes was not dealt with, as the court said the laws had long since been repealed and addressing them would be “moot.”

Are non-indigenous Canadians at risk of losing their property to the Métis?

No. While the Red River Settlement included what is now modern-day Winnipeg, Manitoba Metis Federation president David Chartrand said the Métis are not out to push people out of their homes and off land they legitimately purchased. He said the Métis know what it’s like to be pushed from their homes and will not do that to anyone else. Instead, they want to negotiate cash settlements with Ottawa, or land claims from existing Crown land.

This happened more than a century ago. Why is it still an issue?

Both the federal and provincial governments argued in their briefs to the court that the case was without merit because it had long passed the statute of limitations. Both the Manitoba Court of Appeal and the lower court in Manitoba agreed. However, the Supreme Court said Friday because the Métis were not seeking personal remedies, and made no claim for damages, the case was not affected by the passage of time.

If the MMF wasn’t seeking money or land, why bother?

This case gives the Manitoba Metis Federation some weight behind negotiations for land or cash settlements with the federal government. Although it did not specifically ask for the court to determine how much the Métis people are owed, the MMF will use the ruling to argue the federal government needs to live up to promises made 143 years ago.

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