What the Metis can teach First Nations: Avoiding federal paternalism part of solution

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel


“Perhaps the most compelling reason for us opting out of an exclusive relationship with the federal government is that, while it might enhance our political status, it does not fit with the Metis way of doing things.” So read a constitutional document from the Federation of Metis Settlements back in 1982, when Canada’s constitution was repatriated .
Canada’s Metis have always held to goals distinct from Canada’s First Nations and such distinctness might be a model for status Indians. After all, in the rush to find solutions to what ails First Nations, policymakers forget the valuable clues that exist in what the Metis have done and are doing right.
For example, most studies of income disparity between Aboriginals and the rest of the population consistently point out that Metis, as a separate Aboriginal group, do better than status Indians and the Inuit. The Metis also fare better than on and off-reserve First Nations in median income and educational attainment.
A recent study by a left-leaning think tank alluded to this observation, but did not explore the ramifications. “It would, therefore, not be surprising if that group were more integrated into the mainstream economy over time because of urban residency, access to equivalent programs and services, and greater choic­es and opportunities,” reads the study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
Increased involvement in the economy due to urbanization is certainly part of the reason for better socio-economic outcomes. So far, so good. However, one significant difference has been the relationship between the Metis and the federal government. While maintaining a fierce sense of cultural identity and historic nationhood, the Metis have resisted a “protective” relationship with the federal government.
In his book, Quiet Revolution West: The Rebirth of Metis Nationalism, a former advisor to successive Metis leaders explored the historic role of the Metis in the founding of Manitoba.  John Weinstein notes how when the federal government of John A. Macdonald negotiated the transfer of 1.4 million acres to the children of the Metis under the Manitoba Act, the intent was to respect the Metis as a separate people.
It was clear the Metis, who formed the majority of the province of Manitoba at the time, wanted a land base for their community under self-governing institutions. However, they were more interested in political powers than the protection of the Crown offered to the Indians and they rejected the restrictive treaty and Indian Act reserve system.
For various historic reasons, much of this Metis land base was lost. However, in other Western provinces, self-governing Metis communities exist. In Alberta, eight autonomous Metis settlements exist and they work closely with the provincial government, another departure from treaty Indian-Ottawa relationship, where delegated powers are too often scorned. (Unfortunately, and important to note though, Metis in these communities do not enjoy full ownership rights as individuals and cannot use land as collateral.)

For Metis who have not moved to the cities, the Metis settlements offered a continuation a land base under self-governing institutions, yet avoided the restrictions of Crown protection, treaties, and a system of constant approval from the Minister of Indian Affairs. In other words, having this system allows the Metis to retain land and autonomy, while enjoying greater integration into mainstream society.
For those First Nations who desire to remain on their lands and enjoy self-government, perhaps this model offers more hope. Retaining historic claims to territory and autonomy does not have to come within a restrictive reserve system, as the Metis have demonstrated.
In research over court cases involving Metis land grants under the Manitoba Act, it was revealed the Metis preferred land held in fee simple, rather than in restrictive collective tenure held by the Crown, as in the case of Indians. The Metis preferred the benefits and protections of private property.
The Metis demonstrate that one can be nationalist, yet aggressively involved in the modern economy. According to Weinstein, when the Hudson’s Bay Company asserted its trade monopoly in the 19th century, they were opposed by a Metis middle class who insisted on the free trade of furs and the continuation of export industries; the latter included the opening up of a trade route between the Red River to Saint Paul, Minnesota in order to gain access to the American market. In 1845, after the Metis petitioned the governor of the Red River settlement for special status, one of their later demands was for a declaration of free trade (“le commerce est libre”).
Fee simple land, trade, commerce, an absence of Ottawa’s Indian Act and voluntary integration. To improve the condition of First Nations, it seems the best remedies may be right here in Canada.