First Nations chiefs call on Ford government to withdraw recognition of Métis communities

By Alan S. Hale June 21, 2022

The province has landed in the middle of a conflict over territorial rights between First Nations and the Métis Nation of Ontario (MNO), with the former calling on the government to withdraw its recognition of Métis communities as rights-holding Indigenous groups.

Premier Doug Ford has already promised the chiefs his government will “sort all this out.”

Last week, the Chiefs of Ontario held multiple in-camera sessions during their annual assembly on the MNO’s alleged assertions of Indigenous rights in the territories and treaty areas claimed by First Nations. (The specific assertions in question, discussed in private, are unclear.)

They passed a resolution calling on the province to protect First Nation territorial rights from the supposed encroachment of the MNO. Another meeting on the subject is slated for September.

“We have to let people know where we stand in relation to the Métis and the issues and challenges we are facing within our traditional territories and communities,” said Garden River First Nation Chief Andy Rickard, who put forward the resolution.

Métis Nation of Ontario president Margaret Froh, right, would not shed light on what specific rights assertions her organization is allegedly making that may have sparked backlash from the chiefs. (MNO)

“We have to de-fuel this train that is going down the tracks and bring it to a sudden stop,” added Chief R. Donald Maracle of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte. “We have not been consulted, and we have historic treaties recognizing our jurisdiction to the ownership of the land.”

The resolution called on both Ontario and Canada to abstain from entering into any agreements with the MNO that recognize Métis community’s rights under Sec. 35 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms “without input or consent of First Nations.”

Ontario has multiple agreements in place with the MNO recognizing the Indigenous rights of the Métis under the Constitution, alongside First Nations and Inuit communities. Most notably, a framework agreement was inked in late 2017 by the Kathleen Wynne Liberals, the MNO and Ottawa, after Ontario agreed to recognize six “historic Métis communities” within the province.

The framework set out a process for recognizing the Indigenous rights of Métis communities within Ontario, including the establishment of a “government-to-government” relationship between the MNO and Ontario, and the creation of a negotiating process to deal with “collectively-held rights and credible claims” of Métis communities.

The First Nations chiefs’ motion demanded the province “retract its defective and non-credible political recognition of the six historic Métis communities,” saying they “did not exist as a matter of history and therefore cannot be the legal basis for recognition of Sec. 35 rights.”

The motion also states that First Nations treaties with the Crown supersede any “political” recognition of the Métis by the province.

“The actions of Ontario and Canada erode the spirit and intent of the Treaties, affect First Nations’ Treaty rights and violate the honour of the Crown,” the motion reads.

But this position is complicated by the fact one of those six, the Métis community near Sault Ste. Marie, was legally recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada as having Indigenous rights in R. v. Powley. The case centred around two Métis hunters who were charged with hunting without a licence but argued successfully their Indigenous rights meant they didn’t need one. The high court’s decision was cited by the province for recognizing the other five communities in 2017.

“It’s going to be hard to argue that [Sault Ste. Marie] is not a historic Métis community,” warned Gull Bay First Nation Chief Wilfred King. “Unless the Supreme Court of Canada reverses their decision, they have the legal recognition.”

The Chiefs of Ontario also demanded a “thorough review of the historical and legal basis of Ontario’s recognition” of the Métis and to give First Nations who may be affected by that recognition “robust involvement” in the review process.

‘Our rights can, and do, co-exist,’ says MNO president

In May, Couchiching First Nation Chief Brian Perrault told Ford that First Nations have been faced “at every turn” by Sec. 35 rights assertions by the Métis. Those rights may be in the Constitution, Perrault told the premier, but they are “not equal rights” with those of FNs.

“The Wynne government signed some agreement, and now the MNO has blanked Ontario with their ‘zones’ in our treaty territories and they don’t have treaty rights,” Perrault complained to Ford.

“That’s our territory, and any time we sit down with industry or anything, both levels of government are trying to accommodate the Métis, who want equal numbers [of representatives] at the negotiating table.”

The issue does not appear to be contained to Treaty 3, where Couchiching is located. According to a draft resolution presented to the Chiefs of Ontario last November, Matachewan First Nation in Treaty 9 was seeking support for a lawsuit challenging the MNO’s assertion of Rights in their territory. It’s not clear if such a lawsuit was ever filed.

Ford acknowledged he was aware the issue had been brought up with Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford, and promised Perrault that “we’re going to sort all this out.”

Queen’s Park Today reached out to the premier’s office and Ministry of Indigenous Affairs asking how they plan to respond to the resolution but did not receive an answer by deadline.

Métis Nation of Ontario president Margaret Froh told Queen’s Park Today she was unaware of the details of the negotiations in Treaty 3 that have upset Chief Perrault and Couchiching, nor did she shed light on what specific rights assertions her organization is making in other regions that may have sparked the backlash.

Métis rights under Sec. 35 are equal to those of First Nations, Froh argued, even if some chiefs think otherwise. She said MNO’s success in obtaining recognition for those rights doesn’t mean Métis communities are attempting to encroach on First Nations.

“The rights of Métis citizens are not subordinate or derivative to First Nation rights, and they don’t take away from, in any shape or form, First Nations rights,” Froh told Queen’s Park Today by phone a few hours after the chiefs passed their resolution. “We respect First Nations and their assertion, and their work with other governments to seek reconciliation. It’s vital that our rights be respected alongside theirs. Our rights can, and do, co-exist.”

Froh rejected the notion that the Métis do not have treaty rights because they were not parties to the treaties when they were signed. She noted that members of the Rainy River Métis community did sign Treaty 3 in 1875.

“That is a fact of history, and we have long said our assertion of Métis rights will rise or fall on the backs of history. It’s actually the only example of the Métis ever signing a treaty in this country,” she said.

At last week’s assembly, former Couchiching chief Sara Mainville warned the MNO may be laying the groundwork to make a land claim within Treaty 3. While Froh downplayed that possibility, saying there is “no claim process that is accessible for Métis in Canada” to make a land claim, she didn’t close the door to such action should circumstances change.

“We are pushing to ensure that we bring forward and have respect for Métis rights in Ontario, and that absolutely includes historic grievances,” she said. “We don’t have a process to go through, but that doesn’t stop us from saying that there are broken promises [from our signing of Treaty 3].”

Froh did not indicate how the MNO plans to respond to the Ontario Chiefs’ push, other than to say the MNO will continue to pursue its own relationship with the province while working collaboratively with other Indigenous groups on their common goals.

“We continue to invite that [dialogue], but I think it’s fair to say that the rights of our communities are not up for debate,” she said.