Understanding Métis Rights within Mi’kma’ki

By: Jaime Battiste, Citizenship Coordinator, KMKNO

Over the years, Mi’kmaq people have seen the landscape of Atlantic Canada become more and more multicultural and reflective of the cultures of people who originate from various parts of the world. Constitutionally recognized as Aboriginal peoples of Canada, the Métis are one such group who have historic recognition in Ontario, the Prairie Provinces, and northern territories (Northwest); however organizations in the Atlantic have recently been established claiming Métis recognition as well. This article is meant to explain what the Courts and Métis Organizations have stated in regards to Métis rights and their traditional territory.  

The rights that the Métis have, as an Aboriginal group, differ from that of First Nations/Indians because of their history and special status in Canada. The history of the Métis is tied with the Fur Trade in Western and Central Canada. At a time when trappers began to start families with women of First Nations decent, the Métis population began to grow in numbers and distinct Métis communities were established. Over the years, the Métis population continued to grow and began to move into many areas west of Ontario, especially throughout Manitoba. According to the Métis National Council, “a new Aboriginal people emerged – the Métis people – with their own unique culture, traditions, language (Michif, way of life, collective consciousness and nationhood.”  

Many of us have been taught in school about the Métis leader Louis Riel, and the collective Métis efforts to protect their homeland and their fight for their rights from the 1860’s onward. Indeed the story of Métis history is much like that of many First Nations in Canada – they were displaced from their territories, agreements with the Crown were not implemented, and they too had to struggle to have their rights recognized by the Canadian legal system.

In 2003, the Rights of Métis were finally recognized in the landmark Powley decision. This case recognized and affirmed the existence of the Métis as a distinct Aboriginal people with existing rights protected by section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.  Since this Supreme Court of Canada ruling, many organizations have begun to surface who claim Métis heritage, however the Métis National Council – the national advocate for Métis Rights in Canada – have been consistent in their definition of Métis. According to their organization, the Métis are a group whose historical base is Ontario and the western provinces of Canada. In fact in 2013, the Métis National Council passed a resolution stating:

Be it therefore resolved that this General Assembly re-affirms that there is only one Métis Nation, and that the geographic homeland of the Métis Nation is the historic Northwest which entered into confederation in 1870 through the negotiations of the Métis Provisional Government led by President Louis Riel”.

Many questions continue to surface from the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia as they begin to ask how this group of people could impact Mi’kmaw rights in our traditional territory of Mi’kma’ki. At Kwilmu’kw Maw-klusuaqn Negotiation Office (KMKNO) we hope to shed some light on what the courts, National Métis Organizations and our leadership have to say about the Métis of the Atlantic.

At a Daniels & Manitoba Métis Federation conference in the spring of 2013, the Métis Chair, Jean Teillet who was also the lead council in Powley stated, “A progressive change in language has meant that, if you are not accepted by a First Nations, they use Métis. This is the wrong definition of Métis… Métis is about distinct peoples, not a historical genealogy.” At the conference, Jean Teillet went on to highlight examples of people with mixed European-First Nation ancestry who continue to define themselves wrongly as Métis. Presentations were given by a number of key Métis leaders, academics, and advocates who all stated that unless an individual has a connection to the Métis homeland of the Northwest, they are not Métis. They had felt that there is yet to be confirmed evidence of the existence of Métis in the Atlantic. 

The courts have also weighed in on the subject of the Métis of the Atlantic in the case of R. v. Vautour, where the court could “find no solid historical indicators” in the evidence that pointed to the existence of a separate Métis community in the Atlantic. The Courts would appear to affirm what Grand Keptin Andrew Denny has consistently stated, “There was intermarriage between Mi’kmaq and Europeans especially the French, however, these individuals either became an accepted part of the Mi’kmaq community or Acadian community.” 

This acceptance was very different, for the people here seeing as how this was not the case for the Métis of the Northwest, who were often discriminated against by the First Nations communities or the Canadian communities and so they went onto create their own separate communities and culture. 

It is this inclusion in the East and exclusion in the Northwest that it is believed that created the significant distinction between Métis of the East and of the Northwest. Historically, the Mi’kmaq included those who married from outside of our ancestry, as long as these individuals followed the rights and responsibilities associated with being a Mi’kmaw. As Dr. Frank Tough a professor at the University of Alberta noted amusingly during the Daniels Conference, “One of the reasons Métis had their own separate communities is they didn’t want to be treated like Indians, but then again, Indians didn’t want to be treated like Indians either.”        

There are many parallels between the Mi’kmaq and the Métis in regards to their histories – both have had a rich and distinct history, fighting for many years to protect rights which they negotiated with colonial governments: the Mi’kmaq with the British Crown, and the Métis with Canada. However, key to current discussions is that both the Mi’kmaq and Métis have a territorial homeland and their rights are recognized within the confines of that territory – the Mi’kmaq within the Atlantic (Mi’kma’ki) and the Métis in their homeland of the Northwest. The Supreme Court of Canada in Van Der Peet has recognized that a collective Aboriginal right, of a nation or group is specific to their territory, for the Mi’kmaq, it was notably noted in the Marshall treaty right decision in 1999. As Mi’kmaw, we do not have the Aboriginal Right to hunt the buffalo of the plains, just as a Métis would not have the Aboriginal Right to take part in the moose or salmon harvests in Nova Scotia. 

So while we encourage people in the Atlantic, who have moved to this region from the Métis homeland, to celebrate their Métis identity and connections to their friends and relations in Métis communities of the Northwest, the Métis who claim to originate from the Atlantic have not been recognized by the Métis nationally or the Canadian Courts as having any rights within Mi’kma’ki.

Kwilmu’kw Maw-klusuaqn Negotiation Office works on behalf of the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs in the negotiations and consultations between the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia, the Province of Nova Scotia and the Government of Canada. KMKNO was developed by the Mi’kmaq for the Mi’kmaq. The purpose of these negotiations and consultations is to implement our Aboriginal and Treaty rights from the treaties signed by our ancestors in the 1700’s.