The backlash against the Trudeau government’s proposed Métis self-government legislation is “largely based on misconceptions,” the minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations said Thursday, as he appeared unmoved by a recent call for its withdrawal.
“This is an opportunity to set right a long-standing wrong, when Canadian laws and governments failed generations of Métis,” said Gary Anandasangaree, in an hour-long appearance before the parliamentary committee studying the government bill.
The House of Commons Indigenous affairs committee has now spent more than a month hearing passionate, sometimes frustrated testimony about Bill C-53 in Ottawa.
The bill would recognize Métis associations in Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta as Indigenous governments, while empowering the executive branch of government to approve future, still-unwritten treaties with them through order-in-council.
Leaders from the three organizations, backed by Métis National Council President Cassidy Caron, hailed the bill as reconciliation in action, a long-overdue promise decades, even centuries in the making.
But MPs also heard concerns from some Métis communities and criticism from Ontario First Nations leaders, who reject Métis claims in their territories and warn the fight will damage their relationship with the governing Liberals.
Anandasangaree said he met with Ontario chiefs several times and listened to their concerns, but he dismissed the concerns before the committee.
“The concerns that are laid out are not what is in the bill,” he said.
Ontario communities controversial
This was Anandasangaree’s first appearance at the committee. He sidestepped a question from NDP MP Lori Idlout about whether the Liberals divided Indigenous people by introducing the bill in this way, prompting her to interrupt and ask again.
The second time, he acknowledged governments — including his own — reinforced colonialism in the past but said it isn’t happening here.
In their testimony, Manitoba Métis Federation leaders accused the Métis Nation of Ontario of national identity theft. At issue are six new MNO communities the Ontario government recognized as historic in 2017, which the federation and First Nations consider inauthentic.
“We assure the committee that these ‘historic Métis communities’ in most of Ontario have no connection to us,” said Will Goodon, housing minister for the Manitoba federation.
The new communities sit as far east as the Ottawa River watershed, where Justin Roy, councillor for Kebaowek First Nation, said their recognition will have large impacts on the unceded Algonquin territory that straddles the river.
“We have been the rights and title holders of these lands since time immemorial,” Roy told the committee on Tuesday.
His community is roughly 380 kilometres north of Ottawa in Quebec. The Algonquin Anishinabe Nation never signed a treaty surrendering its land title and is challenging the 2017 recognition in court.
“There has never been an established Métis community up and down the Ottawa River, the Kichi Zibi,” said Roy, using the river’s Algonquin name.
Anandasangaree said he is satisfied with the Métis registry systems, pointing to the recent removal of thousands of MNO citizens with incomplete files from its registry.
AFN says concerns must be heard
The Assembly of First Nations, the umbrella organization for more than 630 chiefs, is demanding the bill’s withdrawal.
In a Tuesday committee appearance, interim National Chief Joanna Bernard said the organization’s mandate is to protect First Nations rights and interests from “unfounded Métis rights assertions,” via a chiefs resolution passed this summer.
“Bill C-53’s broad recognition of Métis rights creates a deep sense of unfairness for First Nations whose rights have been denied,” Bernard said, urging MPs to hear First Nations concerns about lack of consultation and possible violations of their treaty and inherent rights.
Anandasangaree said repeatedly the bill doesn’t impact anyone else and described himself as “comfortable” there was no need to consult First Nations on it.
“C-53 is essentially a recognition of the governance of the Métis of Ontario. It does not in any way deal with harvesting rights. It does not deal with land rights,” he said.
The AFN’s senior legal counsel Julie McGregor rejected that interpretation as she spoke alongside Bernard, and said for First Nations, inherent rights and governance systems are tied directly to the land.
“It seems like a very colonial, non-Indigenous perspective” to have one without the other, she said.
Some Alberta Métis communities who reject the authority of the Métis Nation of Alberta also oppose the bill, but the minister had the same response for them, saying the proposed legislation only concerns those who elect to join those three associations.
Once the committee completes its study and if it adopts the bill, C-53 would return to the House of Commons for a third reading and, if it passes there, head to the Senate to repeat the process.
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