This case is going to affect every citizen of this country
Written by Leah Janzen
Tuesday, 04 April 2006
Metis land claim could cost billions
THE largest Metis land claim case in Canada -- potentially worth billions of dollars -- will get underway in a Manitoba court room Monday, 25 years after the lawsuit was first filed and 136 years after the conflict was ignited.
The case centres on a massive stretch of land the Metis argue should have been theirs as a result of the Manitoba Act of 1870.
It includes all of Winnipeg and strips on both sides of the Assiniboine River from Winnipeg to Portage la Prairie, and both sides of the Red River from Selkirk to Emerson.
The case could see Ottawa and the province on the hook for billions of dollars in compensation and could redefine the position of the Metis people in Canada.
"For over a century there has been a government position that we don't exist and that has to change. We love Canada, but we deserve what is rightly ours," said David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Metis Federation.
Chartrand said the federal government has tried to derail the case with legal wrangling and delays for the last two and a half decades.
"This case is going to cost (Canada) billions and affect every citizen of this country. It's humongous," said Chartrand.
He said the Metis people are seeking a land base and financial compensation for the loss of their land and resources.
But almost as important, said Chartrand, is their desire for Canada to formally recognize Metis rights, and acknowledge that they were treated unfairly.
"If we continue in the direction we're going we will become a burden on society and that's not what our nation wants,'' he said. "If you give us the ability to prosper, we will prosper."
Both the federal and provincial governments will argue they held up their side of the land agreements made in 1870 and owe no more to the Metis.
To understand the roots of this case -- formally known as Manitoba Metis Federation versus the Attorney General of Canada and the Attorney General of Manitoba -- one needs to return to the early days of Manitoba's entry into Confederation.
In 1870, only 17,000 people lived in Manitoba. At least 10,000 of them were Metis. They were called "half-breeds," "burntwoods" or "country-born" in those days, crude names for children born of relationships between aboriginal women and European settlers.
At the time, the Metis were a cohesive, politically organized community in the area around the Red River Settlement, which roughly covered all the lands settled along the Red River between The Forks in Winnipeg and Selkirk.
The Metis were nervous about the federal government's plan to acquire the territory which would come to be called Manitoba. They resisted the annexation, fearing they would be driven off their land in order to give it to newly arriving settlers.
They organized an armed resistance and formed a provisional government led by Louis Riel. Canada's first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, agreed to negotiate terms with the provisional government for Manitoba's entry into Confederation.
The Manitoba Act rose from those negotiations, and contained two sections which form the foundation for the Metis case.
Section 31 called for Ottawa to set aside 1.4 million acres of land -- selected by the lieutenant-governor of the province -- to be divided among the children of the "half-breed heads of families" residing in the province. Section 32 allowed that the land that people already occupied along the rivers, but for which they did not have "land script" or official deeds, would be protected and not taken away.
The Metis argue that despite the act, they were cheated out of the best and most valuable pieces of Manitoba. The MMF estimates that 85 per cent of the Metis did not receive the lands to which they were entitled.
JIM Aldridge, one of the two renowned Canadian land claim lawyers handling the MMF case, said that while the land was to be set aside for the benefit of the Metis children, most of it was annexed, occupied or bought up by other settlers.
"The great bulk of the land ended up in the hands of speculators,'' he said. "How did that happen? That will be one of the questions we will be asking in this case."
It's alleged speculators bought the land cheaply from the Metis and flipped it for profit to wealthy settlers.
Thomas Berger, the MMF's other high-profile lawyer in this case, said the Manitoba Act gave Ottawa the discretion to decide how to distribute the 1.4 million acres to Metis children.
"We say they failed in that duty," said Berger. "The Metis never secured a foothold in the life of the province or a land base."
Lawyers for the government of Canada and Manitoba are expected to argue that obligations undertaken in 1870 were met and that if the Metis chose to sell their land or their titles after the fact, it was their decision to make and not something for which the government should be held responsible.
But Chartrand said the Metis were never given the lands or the options they were promised.
Chartrand said the Metis were promised by Prime Minister Macdonald and his successor, George-Etienne Cartier, that they would get the first choice of land before settlers arrived, and an additional 1.4 million acres for their children.
Ottawa says it can only rely on the Manitoba Act and its stipulations and cannot act on side deals or negotiations that went on over 135 years ago.
Berger said while the act is specific, he and Aldridge have amassed over 2,000 historical documents including journals, letters, speeches in the House of Commons and articles from the Manitoba Free Press to back up their argument that there was more to the promises than what was stipulated in the act.
"These documents will provide context and meaning to the bare bones provisions of the act,'' he said.
Chartrand said Metis at the time of Manitoba's birth wanted to receive their land in large blocks comprising wood lots, river lots and hay lands so they could continue their agricultural, hunting and fishing way of life in community with other Metis.
The Metis did not get their wish, said Chartrand. He said that as a result of bureaucratic delays, they were denied the right to choose valuable lands. When the time came, the best lands had already been gobbled up by the settlers.
Instead, Metis land parcels were scattered across the province, making it impossible for their communities to thrive and grow.
Chartrand points to the successful Mennonite settlements in Manitoba as the way Metis would have preferred their land allocation to proceed.
He notes Mennonites were granted large sections of land next to one another so they could live and prosper in community.
Metis were left to set up their homes on land neighbouring First Nation reserves, said Chartrand, an arrangement which has not always been satisfactory for either group.
"The natives are saying, 'You have no rights here' and are chasing us off,'' he said. "We are landless people."
Chartrand said he recognizes that it will be impossible for the Metis to reclaim the lands they say they were denied, given that most are occupied by Winnipeggers and those in farming communities along the rivers.
But the Metis will argue they still require a land base from which to begin the process of self-government. They are also seeking unspecified financial compensation.
"People need to think about what they'd do if someone took their home away from them and their land,'' said Chartrand. "They'd go to court and fight like hell to protect their land and their home. We want what is ours."
Chartrand said questions about who will benefit from any settlement will be dealt with later. The case is currently limited to people represented by the Manitoba Metis Federation.
Chartrand said he intends to hold a referendum once the case is complete to determine whether a settlement should include Metis outside of Manitoba or those who are not current members of the MMF.
Berger said the Metis case is timely.
He said that while the Metis were identified as a distinct aboriginal culture in the Canadian Constitution in 1982, no "meaningful" settlements regarding outstanding claims have been reached between them and the Canadian government.
"Sooner or later we have to sit down, as Canada, and work this out with the Metis,'' he said. "This case is designed to move that process along."
What the Act said
The Metis land claims case relies heavily on Sections 31 and 32 of the Manitoba Act, which created the province in 1870.
Here's what the act said:
Called for the government to set aside 1.4 million acres of land -- selected by the Lieutenant-Governor of the province -- to be divided among the children of the "half-breed heads of families" residing in the province.
Conferred rights on all settlers in Manitoba who had existing land interests, the majority of whom were Metis or "half-breed." Land these people had already settled was to be protected. 135 years later, here's what it costs The Manitoba Act of 1870 promised to give 1.4 million acres of land to the Metis.
Here's a look at what some empty parcels of land in and around Winnipeg are fetching these days:
$10,500 - for a 33- by 100-foot lot in the core area
$59,900 - for a 1.95-acre lot in St. Vital
$90,000 - for a 60- by 300-foot river lot in the city
$825,000 - for 4.87 acres of riverfront property in East St. Paul
$3,618,250 - for 144.73 acres inside the floodway near Tinkertown on the Trans-Canada Highway east of the city
$5,681,500 - for 227.26 acres near Springfield
-- Source: MLS.ca
Who are the Metis?
* The Metis are one of three recognized aboriginal peoples of Canada along with First Nations and Inuit people.
* The Metis are concentrated primarily from Ontario westward.
* The Metis are descendants of marriages of Cree, Ojibway, and Saulteaux women to French-Canadian and British settlers dating back to the mid-17th century.
* The Metis traditionally spoke a mixed language called Michif which is a combination of French nouns and Cree verbs.
* Metis is a French word which is related to the Spanish word Mestizo, which means mixed blood.
* The 2001 Statistics Canada census found there are 293,310 self-reported Metis in Canada. Estimates of true numbers range from 300,000 to 700,000 nationwide. There are 56,795 self-reported Metis in Manitoba. The Manitoba Metis Federation estimates that the true number of Metis in the province is over 100,000. There are 66,055 self-reported Metis in Alberta and 48,345 in Ontario.
Lots on the line for Metis, taxpayers
What's at stake:
The Manitoba Metis Federation is seeking an unspecified land base for the M?tis and likely billions of dollars in compensation for loss of land already occupied.
* All of Winnipeg
* 3.2-kilometre strips along both sides of the Assiniboine River to Portage la Prairie, and both sides of the Red River from Selkirk to Emerson.
Who's arguing the case for the Metis?
Jim Aldridge and Thomas Berger, two Vancouver-based lawyers.
Aldridge successfully argued the historic land claim case of the Nisga'a in northern B.C. in the late 1990s. The Nisga'a received a settlement which included 2,000 square kilometres of land and over $251 million.
Berger argued many aboriginal rights cases in the 1970s, which sparked the first modern First Nation treaty negotiations in Canada. He also fought for the inclusion of aboriginal rights into the Canadian Constitution. He received the Order of Canada in 1990.
More than two dozen treaties have been signed in Canada since 1973, when a Supreme Court of Canada decision raised doubts about the fairness of an aboriginal land deal in B.C.
1975 -- The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement included a total of $225 million as compensation to the James Bay Cree and the Inuit of Northern Quebec to be paid by Canada and Quebec.
1978 -- The Northeastern Quebec Agreement included a total of $9 million in compensation for the Naskapi people of Quebec.
1984 -- The Inuvialuit Final Agreement included approximately 91,000 square kilometres of land and $152 million in compensation to the Inuvialuit.
1992 -- The Gwich'in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement included about 22,422 square kilometres in the Northwest Territories. The Gwich'in also received a tax-free capital transfer of $75 million over 15 years and a share of annual resource royalties in the Mackenzie Valley.
1999 -- The Nisga'a Nation of B.C. received 2,000 square kilometres of land around the lower Nass Valley in northern B.C. They also got $211.5 million comprised of a capital transfer of $190 million as well as $10 million for the establishment of a fisheries conservation trust and $11.5 million to participate in the general commercial fishery. The Nisga'a also got one-time funding for transition and implementation activies worth $40.4 million.
-- Source: Indian and Northern Affairs Canada
© 2006 Winnipeg Free Press. All Rights Reserved.
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