A high-ranking federal official says Ottawa has not verified the legitimacy of disputed Métis communities in Ontario that have been at the centre of heated debate over a government bill.
Martin Reiher, a senior assistant deputy minister in the Crown-Indigenous Relations Department, said Thursday that Bill C-53 only recognizes the provincial Métis organizations that represent communities in Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan.
The government isn’t required to dig into the legitimacy of specific communities themselves, he said.
“The government of Canada has not played a role in that regard.”
Reiher made the comments at a parliamentary committee where Indigenous leaders have been hotly debating legislation that would recognize Métis self-governance in the three provinces.
The Chiefs of Ontario and other First Nations groups have argued that six new communities within the Métis Nation of Ontario, which the provincial government recognized in 2017, have no historical basis to exist.
NDP MP Lori Idlout asked Reiher why he thinks there have been “so many concerns raised” about the membership of the Ontario group and whether it had enough checks and balances in place.
He replied saying the organization has worked hard on a membership registry, and noted that it removed some 6,000 members with incomplete profiles in June. He added it has an “obligation” to provide verifiable information.
Idlout said in an interview on Friday that she wasn’t satisfied by the official’s answers.
“They aren’t doing their homework to make sure that they are hearing from the right people,” she said.
“And I can understand why First Nations in Ontario would be greatly concerned about what’s going on.”
Idlout wouldn’t say whether her caucus plans to vote in favour of the bill. She said they’re working on amendments that would help alleviate the concerns of some of those who testified.
Another NDP member of Parliament, Charlie Angus, raised concerns on social media Thursday evening.
He said Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree, who had testified at the committee earlier that day, should “step out of his office” and come to the territories of Nishnawbe Aski Nation and Anishinabek Nation.
“He needs to explain how this bill will actually work on the ground,” Angus said.
Anandasangaree said during his testimony that Métis have had to listen to people who are trying to “deny their existence,” and he believes the concerns that have been raised are based on misconceptions.
In a statement on Friday, Métis Nation of Ontario president Margaret Froh said those making “false statements” that deny the existence of Ontario Métis are misrepresenting what Bill C-53 says, and are harming the mental well-being of Métis.
She added there is a “fundamental disconnect” between what some are saying about the Métis Nation of Ontario and Bill C-53 in “sound bites that are simply not credible” when history and law are considered.
Froh pointed to the 2003 Supreme Court of Canada Powley decision that recognized a Métis community in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
That case did not consider the six other Métis communities Ontario and the Métis Nation of Ontario recognized in 2017, but defined a set of criteria for what may constitute a Métis right and who could be entitled to those rights.
“It is simply wrong to suggest that Canada has not verified the credibility of the (Métis Nation of Ontario’s) registry and that it is a legitimate Métis government. The testimony of Canada’s representatives at the (committee) is being mischaracterized and again misconstrues what Bill C-53 says and does,” she said.
“Our communities are deeply hurt by the falsehoods that are being perpetuated by some and the notion that finally recognizing the Métis people and our rights takes away from the rights of anyone else. We strongly disagree that reconciliation is a zero-sum game.”
Froh did not directly address concerns raised by Idlout and First Nations leadership around how Ottawa did not vet specific communities.
Nipissing First Nation Chief Scott McLeod, a member of the Chiefs of Ontario and a vocal critic of Bill C-53, said the Crown-Indigenous Relations official’s comments are yet another example of the federal government not doing its due diligence.
And while the legislation itself may not specify which communities are under the Métis Nation of Ontario’s jurisdiction, it’s essentially giving recognition to them, McLeod said in an interview Friday.
“It’s ludicrous that this is being legislated out of thin air,” he said, adding that passing the bill would be a slippery slope that could harm First Nations rights.
The Assembly of First Nations, which represents 630 First Nations across Canada, is calling for the bill to be withdrawn altogether.
Other Métis organizations in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia have raised their own concerns.
But the president of the Métis National Council, Cassidy Caron, told MPs last week that she supports the bill.
And the leaders of Métis organizations that are directly affected by it have said the legislation would unlock opportunities and foster a new relationship with Ottawa.
They have emphasized that the recognition of their self-governance rights would do nothing to harm other Indigenous groups.
Amid concerns that the bill could open the door to allowing land or harvesting rights for Métis, Anandasangaree stressed on Thursday that that’s not what the legislation does, though future treaties could be negotiated.
Idlout said she wants that in writing, as the current wording in the bill leaves uncertainties.
“If the intent is that there will not be land or resource rights being infringed, then clearly state that,” she said.
She added that she believes the Liberals’ handling of the legislation has deepened the divides it is exposing.
“I don’t know what they did right, because all I’ve been hearing is what they’ve done wrong,” Idlout said.
“That does not alleviate the concerns of First Nations, and it doesn’t alleviate the concerns of other Métis … Everyone (who testified) has given us a lot to think about.”
Métis Nation of Ontario president Froh said her community looks forward to seeing the bill pass.
“So we can get on with building a better future for our citizens, communities and Canada as a whole.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2023.
Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press