Do the Métis have treaty rights? An unprecedented legal study aims to set the murky record straight.
“It’s always been assumed that, unlike First Nations, Métis have never actually had treaty relations with the government.”
– Larry Chartrand
Dubbed by some scholars as the “forgotten people”', the Métis have historically been pushed to the margins of Canadian society and even other Indigenous groups. Métis agreements with governments, for one, have typically never been recognized as treaties.
“It’s always been assumed that, unlike First Nations, Métis have never actually had treaty relations with the government,” says Larry Chartrand, a professor of common law at the University of Ottawa and the research chair of the Métis Treaties Project. The initiative aims to challenge this common perception and to show that the Métis — a people of mixed Aboriginal and European ancestry — have concluded treaties since the 19th century. The project, funded by a five-year grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, also involves University of Ottawa civil law professor Sébastien Grammond and common law professor Darren O’Toole, as well as researchers from the universities of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.
The sweeping project seeks to address serious gaps of knowledge on Canada’s Métis. For instance, a comprehensive study of Métis treaties has never been undertaken, a void that Chartrand and his colleagues aim to fill. It will entail a laborious review of political and legal agreements between Métis and the Crown, as well as between Métis and First Nations, going back to the 19th century.
As a lawyer and a Métis who grew up in northern Alberta, Chartrand is acutely aware of injustices the Métis have faced, particularly with respect to land claims. His own grandfather lost land in the Meadow Lake area of Saskatchewan in the 1950s after losing access to his trapline when a new air weapons range was built.
Historically, the troubles over territory worsened after promises of land grants to Métis children in the Manitoba Act, 1870 were not honoured and later replaced by scrip, certificates for land or money that were often picked up by speculators. “It was a one-time extinguishment in exchange for some land,” says Chartrand. “In a sense, Métis became enfranchised and no longer Aboriginal once they took scrip, unlike First Nations who had an ongoing treaty relationship with the Crown.”
O’Toole, a descendant of the Bois-Brûlé in Manitoba, has a personal connection to this past misdeed. He owns a copy of his great-great-grandmother’s scrip; it is not clear whether she lost her land to speculators or never received it in the first place. But this “living connection to that generation” spurred the professor to immerse himself in the study of the Manitoba Act and a Manitoba Metis Federation legal case against the Crown. The case resulted in a 2013 Supreme Court decision concluding the federal government had failed to live up to its obligations to the Métis under section 31 of the Manitoba Act. O’Toole argues that section 31 can in fact be considered a treaty.
“As soon as you talk about treaty rights, it raises the question of who are the beneficiaries of the treaty,” says O’Toole. That, in turn, raises the matter of who qualifies as Métis, a thorny and unresolved issue that Grammond is tackling for the project.
“The courts are grappling with the question of Métis identity,” explains Grammond. “They are stuck with having to make a judgment on this issue.” To shed some light on the debate, he is poring over court transcripts to see how witnesses identify themselves as Métis.
While the Métis Treaties Project will cast a critical look at the historical evolution of Métis agreements with the federal government and with First Nations, it will also project into the future. “A lot of the project is forward-looking towards what could be the models for reconciliation between Métis claims and the government,” says Chartrand. In the short term, the professor and his team plan to involve the Métis community in their research and to produce summaries of their findings that “Métis might find relevant and useful in dealing with government.”
It’s an ambitious journey into uncharted legal territory that has the potential to shake up a long-held understanding — or misunderstanding — of Métis history, identity and rights.
Tracing Métis lineage
Brenda Macdougall knows only too well the challenges of building a genealogical database of a once mobile people. The University of Ottawa’s Chair in Métis Research and Nicole St-Onge, chair of the Institute of Canadian and Aboriginal Studies, have compiled an online repository of 35,000 records of Métis marriages, baptisms and deaths dating back to the late 1700s.
Created in partnership with Chris Andersen, Michael Evans and Ramon Lawrence of the universities of Alberta and British Columbia-Okanagan, the Digital Archive Database also contains fur trade records from British Columbia and censuses from the Red River Settlement.
Refining the database’s search engine was a major hurdle, explains Macdougall. It was complicated by the fact that, historically, Métis surnames were not standardized and straddled French, English and Indigenous languages. Members of the Boisvert family, for instance, may also have been known as Greenwood.
Geared to the public, the collection offers one-stop access to sacramental records gleaned from multiple archives, from 18th-century Michilimackinac in the Great Lakes region to 19th-century Catholic missions on the Great Plains. While it will help individuals map family bloodlines, says Macdougall, “it may also be useful to Métis organizations as they verify citizenship among their members.”
by Monique Roy-Sole