SCC rules Metis, non-status Indians are federal responsibility
Published Thursday, April 14, 2016 4:26AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, April 14, 2016 10:02PM EDT
Aboriginal leaders are cheering the Supreme Court of Canada’s unanimous ruling that Metis and non-status Aboriginals are “Indians” under the Constitution.
The ruling answers the question of who is responsible for negotiating rights and treaties with approximately 600,000 Metis and Aboriginals living off-reserve.
"It is the federal government to whom they can turn," the court said Thursday morning.
The decision could set the stage for Metis and non-status Aboriginals to negotiate access to First Nations programs, services and rights previously unavailable to them.
Metis National Council leader Clement Chartier called Thursday’s ruling a “significant victory” that allows his people to engage in negotiations with the federal government without jurisdictional barriers.
“As a people, as a nation, we have all the elements necessary now to move forward and engage meaningfully with the Government of Canada,” he told reporters.
For decades, the federal and provincial governments have passed the buck about which level of government is responsible for Metis and Aboriginals living off-reserve, leaving them in what the Supreme Court called “a jurisdictional wasteland.” Ottawa had long argued that the authors of the Constitution did not mean to include Metis and non-status Indians in its section about “Indians.”
In its unanimous ruling Thursday, the Supreme Court disagreed.
“The historical, philosophical, and linguistic contexts establish that ‘Indians’ in s. 91(24) includes all Aboriginal peoples, including non status Indians and Métis,” it said.
The court said there was no need to distinguish between First Nations people, non-status Indians and mixed ancestry communities such as Métis.
It also said there was no need to state whether the federal government has a fiduciary duty to Metis and non-status Aboriginals because that would be “restating settled law.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government has yet to read through the full decision, but noted its focus on renewing the relationship with indigenous peoples across this country.
“We’ll be engaging with indigenous leadership to figure out the path forward, but I can guarantee you one thing: the path forward will be together,” he told reporters at an event in London, Ont.
The federal government has pledged $8.4 billion over the next five years to help Canada’s indigenous peoples. Only $25 million of that money is dedicated specifically to Metis people.
But Thursday’s decision could cost the government billions more by granting Metis and non-status Indians benefits that, until now, have only been available to status Indians. Those include dental and vision care, prescription drugs, access to housing and certain tax exemptions. A number of First Nations have also been able to secure land rights and access to natural resources.
Who will have access to what benefits is still unclear, though ancestry will likely play an important role. But Metis representatives say the Supreme Court ruling finally allows Metis and non-status Indians to speak for themselves after more than a century without proper representation.
“We know they are in now,” said Jason Madden, a lawyer for the Metis National Council. “We know that there is a duty to negotiate. Now, we need to get to those tables.”
The case began 17 years ago, when Metis leader Harry Daniels took the federal government to court alleging that Metis people had been unfairly denied rights because they were not considered "Indians" under the Constitution.
He and the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples argued that, since both the federal government and provincial governments have refused to accept jurisdiction for Metis and off-reserve Aboriginals, they had been left without the ability to negotiate treaties or to access programs affecting schooling, health care, culture and language.
In 2013, the Federal Court of Canada recognized Metis and non-status Indians as “Indians.”
The Federal Court of Appeal upheld part of the decision and ruled that Metis should remain Indians under the Constitution. It also said that extending recognition to non-status Indians should occur on a case-by-case basis.
Aboriginal leaders happily welcomed Thursday’s decision, telling a throng of reporters in the foyer of the Supreme Court that the ruling was a “massive victory” after a long struggle.
Daniels died in 2004, before the case could go to trial. His son, Gabriel Daniels, said he was “overwhelmed “by with the ruling and knows his dad would have been pleased that a journey that began in 1982, when he asked former prime minister Pierre Trudeau to include Metis in the Constitution, is finally complete.
“This was his life’s work. I’m very proud of him and I just wish he could have been here,” he told CTV News Channel.
Asked how his children will be affected by the court’s decision and how he would tell the story of their grandfather to them, Daniels was overcome with emotion.
“They’re going to hear one hell of a story and I think they’re going to be proud,” he said.
Dwight Dorey, the national chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples -- the group that took the case to the Supreme Court -- said he looks forward to hearing the end of the term “non-status Indians.”
“When you’re ‘non,’ you don’t exist. That term should be gone forever from the English language in Canada. We are all status now,” Dorey said.