The Supreme Court’s ruling that Métis and non-status Indians are to be considered “Indians” under the Constitution Act of 1867 was greeted by cheers, fiddle music and dancing by members of those groups – but the change is more subtle and limited than you might think.
“I’m ready to celebrate. My first phone call was to my kids to let my sons know that we won, and they’re ecstatic,” said Ron Quintal, president of the Fort McKay Métis Association, who was at the court.
“My community in Alberta, we are in the heart of the oilsands. And we face challenges on a day-to-day basis and government and industry will not consult with us because of the fact that there is no jurisdiction. They don’t know who the jurisdiction belongs to and for what it’s worth, we suffered for it.”
Who is responsible
That’s what’s at the heart of the decision – jurisdiction. This decision is about which level of government has responsibility for providing services like health care and education to Métis and non-status Indians, said Gordon Christie, director of the Indigenous Legal Studies Program at the University of British Columbia.
“It’s significant in that until this moment we didn’t know who had responsibility in terms of programs, services, things like that for the Métis and non-status Indians,” he said. “Now we know that the passing the buck has to stop. The federal government’s responsible for Métis and non-status Indians.”
What this decision does is clear up a confusion that sometimes resulted in individuals not being able to access services at all. It’s less of an issue now than 50 years ago, said Christie, but “There are still people today who have a medical problem, they go to the province, the province says ‘actually you should be going to the federal government for this.’ You go to the federal government and they push you back to the province. So you’re in this grey area. That is what was settled today.”
But changes won’t happen overnight. This is just the first step, he said.
“What’s going to have to happen now is Métis and non-status people, if they feel they are not getting adequate service provision, they’re going to have to go to the government to try to press them to undertake the responsibilities that they have and fulfill them. That’s the big push that’s going to have to happen.”
The government doesn’t have to immediately take action either. “The government is not legally obliged at this moment to actually do anything, per se, other than understand it has responsibility,” he said. They might decide to be proactive, or they might wait to be pushed.
Either way, the federal government will have to work out with Métis people and non-status Indians how to deliver those services. And that could take a while. One question Christie has is, “Who exactly does the federal government negotiate with, work out programs and services with?” Métis people in the Prairies are mostly well-organized, he said, but in other areas much less so.
He feels that problem could be solved though, if the government is really dedicated to taking responsibility and moving ahead.
“A few months ago I would have said that there’s a long battle ahead. But now as of last October, I hope that things are different: that the mood in Ottawa has changed and the approach has changed.”
“If the government is really going to hold itself to its own promises, to its election promises they made, then I think we will see a much smoother transition.”
But although they recognized that it was just a first step, Métis people at the Supreme Court were overjoyed that it was finally taken.
“It’s a historic moment for us,” said Gail Gallupe, president of the McMurray Métis. She wandered through the crowd, asking assembled Métis leaders at the court to sign her copy of the decision. “Getting these signatures, it’s going to be put in our cultural centre and it will be preserved for generations to come,” she said.
“When we go back we can actually say we were at the Supreme Court of Canada. We saw for ourselves the decision that took 17 years to be finalized. It’s great. It’s a celebration. We’re going to go home and celebrate. There will be fiddles and dancing.”