By: Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter,

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller says he is available to broker talks between chiefs in Ontario and the Métis Nation of Ontario.

Miller made his offer at the Assembly of First Nations annual general assembly in Halifax on July 13. It came a day after the chiefs unanimously voted in favour of a resolution to take steps to kill a federal bill that gives the Métis Nations in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario self-government.

“I do understand how heated this is and hopefully there will be a space to sit down… and to have a discussion,” said Miller.

The offer stands whether that discussion is between the Chiefs of Ontario and the Métis Nation of Ontario, or between the various section 35 rights holders in Saskatchewan, Manitoba or Alberta, or elsewhere in the country as parties advocate for their rights, Miller said. Or the minister would just get out of the way if need be, he said.

On June 21, Bill C-53, an Act respecting the recognition of certain Métis governments in Alberta, Ontario and Saskatchewan, to give effect to treaties with those governments and to make consequential amendments to other Acts, received first and second readings in the House of Commons.

“We are not going to support the legislation and we’re going to fight it to the very end,” Gull Bay First Nation Chief Wilfred King told Miller.

Ontario chiefs are leading the way. Concerns centre around what chiefs call unproven claims by the Métis Nation of Ontario for an expanded membership list, including six additional historic Métis communities beyond the single community in northwestern Ontario along the Manitoba border where the Red River Métis settled. Formal recognition of these additional communities was granted by the Ontario government in 2017.

“First Nations in Ontario are calling for Bill C-53 to be withdrawn so that there is a proper due diligence by Canada and consultation with First Nations before the bill is passed to prevent a mistake that will harm legitimate rights holders for generations to come,” said Nipissing First Nation Chief Scott McLeod. He moved AFN Resolution 33/2023, Protect First Nations Rights and Interests from Unfounded Métis Rights Assertions.

McLeod called the bill “a form of modern colonization.”

“For First Nations or legitimate Métis rights holders, Canada is not the arbiter of rights and titles in our territories and does not have the authority to create new section 35 holding entities with jurisdiction in our territories without consulting us,” he said.

In supporting the resolution, chiefs pointed out that federal funding for such issues as housing, education, and health, as well as grant dollars from industry, would be going to Métis communities that were not legitimate rights holders.

“We are not against legitimate Métis rights and claims, and we acknowledge their existence in this country, but this legislation opens the door for people that may not be qualified under that type of criteria,” said McLeod.

The Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF), which holds itself as the national government of the Red River Métis, and the Métis Nation British Columbia (MNBC) have both come out in support of the Ontario First Nations, citing concerns over the MNO’s expanded membership list and increased number of historic communities.

“We certainly do not recognize nor acknowledge that s.35 Red River Métis rights exist in the whole of Ontario …,” wrote Clement Chartier, ambassador for the MMF, to the AFN executive committee on July 6.

The MNO’s membership and additional communities has been an issue with the Métis national advocacy organization, the Métis National Council (MNC), since 2018.

In 2021, the national council passed a motion to establish an expert panel that would, in part, provide the MNO with the opportunity to present the work it “engaged in” with the Ontario government in 2017 to identify the additional historical Métis communities. That expert panel has yet to meet.

“Engaging meaningfully with First Nations (in Ontario) and sincerely addressing the resolution passed at the MNC general assembly are both critical for ensuring a strong, collaborative and resilient Métis Nation,” wrote MNBC President Lissa Dawn Smith in a July 12 letter to MNO President Margaret Froh.

Miller said he understood the concerns raised by chiefs as they did not have the opportunity to review the legislation before it was introduced, which he said was an “archaic trapping of the legislative process.”

He said chiefs and organizations that felt their rights were being impacted will now have the ability to speak before committee on the legislation, which he described as “very skeletal, very basic recognition of the…collective right of certain Métis communities to govern themselves accordingly.”

He stressed that it did not include harvesting rights or land.

The bill says its purpose is to “advance the recognition of the right to self-determination, including the inherent right of self-government recognized and affirmed by section 35 of the Constitution Act 1982…”

The bill was introduced June 16 with a Ways and Means motion associated with it. Ways and Means motions deal with financial measures.

While at this point there are no monies attached to Bill C-53, the bill does include the future possibility for the Métis governments to negotiate “tax treatment” agreements.

Miller said he didn’t want a “false sense of conflict” between Métis and First Nations, because “if there is anyone to blame in this country for the state of the non-recognition of section 35 rights, it should be the federal government. It should be Canada.”

After reading this article today, the MNO responded with a statement from MNO President Margaret Froh. She stated MNO had always welcomed “respectful dialogue with First Nations leaders” and asserted that the MNO had reached out multiple times to Chiefs of Ontario and the Anishinabek Nation to discuss Métis rights and Bill C-53.

Froh also said she welcomes the offer by Miller to facilitate a meeting between the groups, or for Ontario Minister of Indigenous Affairs Greg Rickford to facilitate such a meeting.

“Bill C-53 only pertains to the internal governance of our Métis governments – our Métis citizenship, Métis elections, Métis governance operations, and Métis child and family services. Bill C-53 does not deal with land, harvesting or any land-related rights. It does not impact the rights of First Nations in any way,” read the statement.