A professor from the University of Saskatchewan believes discussions around Metis identity may become one of the hallmark issues for Indigenous people in the 21st century.

In recent weeks, stories have risen around Metis identity and who has the authority to proclaim a person as Metis or not.

Last month, the Manitoba Metis Federation announced their exit from the Metis National Council citing concerns over membership from the MetisNation Ontario.

In the past week in Saskatchewan, the CBC and the Saskatoon Star-phoenix published articles questioning the Indigenous status of University of Saskatchewan professor Carrie Bourassa who claims to be Metis. In the wake of the articles, Bourassa was placed on leave from the University of Saskatchewan and is stepping away from her duties as scientific director of the CIHR Institute of Indigenous Peoples’ Health.

In response to the original CBC article, Bourassa says she belongs to a Metis group in Regina.

“I am Métis and belong to the First Indigenous Riel Métis (F.I.R.M.) Local #33 Regina. I have been vetted through two other locals which are Riel Métis Council of Regina Inc. (RMCR). I obtained that membership on May 10/06 by Clifford LaRocque who was President at the time. I was also accepted into the Regina Riel Métis Council on July 29, 2013,” read a response from Bourassa to the CBC article.

MBC News has reached out to the Riel Metis Council but has yet to receive comment.

Dr. Ken Coates, a professor from the University of Saskatchewan, says there are usually four separate areas of criteria when determining Metis identity; historical, biological, legal and a cultural or community definition. According to Coates, the community definition is usually set by a fixed community or organization that comes up with a definition they are comfortable with and has been vetted and approved.

The professor says the areas of definition can be complex in nature.

“People who are biologically Metis are not necessarily automatically afforded legal status, it all depends on whether they lived a Metis lifestyle and are recognized by the community,” said Coates. “This is not a question that has very easy answers and Canada is one of the only places in the world where this question of mixed ancestry people having legal status has become a matter of national importance.”

Coates, who has been nationally recognized for his work in Indigenous relations, commended this as a valuable contribution Metis people in Canada are making to Indigenous politics on a global scale.

The U of S professor believes we are seeing a greater discussion around Metis identity as the influence of Metis organizations increases throughout the country. In 2016, The Supreme Court of Canada made the historic Daniels decision, which declared the federal government had constitutional responsibility for Metis people. Since 2016, Census data also shows people identifying as Metis in the country has increased significantly.

“This issue is becoming important because Metis people, in general, are finally getting resources and legal attention,” said Coates. “When the Metis people had no money and the law wasn’t working in their favour no one was worried too much about people saying they were Metis… but now a lot more is at stake so the conversation becomes more important.”

In a statement released after the articles on Carrie Bourassa were published the Metis-Nation Saskatchewan says they are the only organization in the province that can determine Metis citizenship.

When asked about the statement made by the MN-S claiming to be the sole provider of Metis citizenship in the province, Coates says once again the answer is complicated.

“The problem you have in the case of mixed ancestry… is that there are a lot of people with mixed ancestry who don’t belong to a historical or cultural group, don’t belong to a Metis community, but seek some sort of identification,” he said. “So we have seen a rapid increase in groups saying that they define Metis identity, but the problem here are the ones that matter in a practical sense are when the government, through the legal process, enforces a particular definition, so, unfortunately, this is when the people outside the community are defining it.”

Coates did have high praise for the MN-S registration system saying it was inclusive and open. He believes it is important for Metis nations and organizations to place “Enormous value on a fair, transparent, and honest system of Metis registration”.

“One that would stand up to external scrutiny and allow all people who are legitimately Metis to be included in that system because their authority with government is going to rest on that registration system.”

Coates believes a strong registration system will allow Metis self-determination to supplant government definitions of identity.

“Over time what will happen is those organizations that have a proper registration system will actually replace the government one because over time that will be the most important one,” said Coates.

When it comes to conflict over who gets to determine Metis identity Coates says there are usually only three current ways to address the matter. Either a larger Metis organization needs to vet the process, the process either needs to go before the government or it needs to go to the courts.

Coates hopes in the future some sort of mediated process can be developed with Metis people taking the lead.

“One that is open, transparent, and secure,” said Coates.

“It is a difficult, difficult process and in one sense it is a last struggle against colonialism because the definition should be up to the people and the community themselves.”

With the growing influence of Metis groups and organizations across the country Coates says these discussions will only get bigger.

“As the rights improve and the resources follow the rights these issues take on much greater significance and it creates an interesting and difficult dynamic within communities because the whole question of who’s in and who’s out is going to become one of the hallmark issues of the middle decades of the 21st century.”

(PHOTO: Dr. Ken Coates, file photo)