The Métis Nation of Alberta (MNA) is asking its members to ratify a constitution, a move that would form an official partnership with the Canadian government and allow the MNA to govern according to its own rules, laws and traditions. However, opponents say this partnership would be a blanket agreement that squashes the rights of individual Métis communities across the province.
The ratification, the largest vote for an Indigenous nation in Canadian history, would establish the MNA as a legitimate government in Canada, a move that has been a long time coming, according to Métis lawyer Jason Madden.
“It’s been a long fight for the Métis to be recognized as a distinct Indigenous peoples with their own inherent right to self-government and their rights that are equal to those of First Nations within the prairies,” said Madden.
Madden is also legal counsel to the MNA. He said in 2019, self-government agreements were signed by Métis governments in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario.
“These agreements really, for the first time, recognized Métis as a distinct, rights-bearing people with their own right to self-government,” said Madden.
“Part and parcel of truly implementing that self-government is for the Métis themselves to adopt a constitution, which is how they will govern themselves. It sets out clear rights and rules for their own citizens within their government, sets out a legislative branch, and how they will be represented at the local, regional and provincial level.”
If the vote goes through, president of the MNA Audrey Poitras said it will give them the authority to govern in a way that meets the unique needs of their people.
Poitras gave housing programs as an example. She said lower-income people in Métis communities may be paying rent that would be equal to a mortgage payment but can’t afford a down payment, keeping them off of the property ladder.
“We worked out a housing agreement where we would be able to support our people if they qualified for a mortgage with the assistance for a down payment so that they can be owning their own home instead of renting from someone else,” said Poitras.
Poitras said they can’t set some programs up because of criteria imposed by the federal government, and their jurisdiction is limited because of their current status under the Alberta Societies Act.
“Currently, the MNA is stuck in the Provincial Societies Act. They needed to have a legal structure and use the Alberta provincial government legislation to give them legal standing and capacity,” said Madden.
“But we’ve always known that’s been an awkward fit and isn’t and was never designed for Indigenous self-government.”
Another change that would come with the new constitution would be the ability to include Métis customs and traditions in the justice system.
“Our citizens have put forward the idea to create what we call a Métis judiciary council: people that are selected from our communities to deal with … people (who) are struggling with doing the right thing.”
Other changes would come in the realms of health, language, education, training and economic development.
“The programs that are designed don’t meet the needs of our community. There might be a program that some of our people who live in a major city could fit into, but (for) some of our people in the northern communities, the small rural communities, they need to be designed (differently),” said Poitras.
The MNA is trying to ratify the constitution because it feels like the federal government imposes rules that don’t fit with Alberta’s unique Métis communities. However, a group of nine Métis communities say the MNA is doing just that to the province’s more rural and remote Métis groups.
Ron Quintal, president of Fort MacKay Métis Nation, said Métis communities across Alberta all have different needs.
“Communities who have been here since time immemorial are standing up and they’re saying, ‘we’re not going to allow some organization that’s based in Edmonton, who does very little for its members outside of Edmonton, to dictate what our rights and our limitations are,’” he said.
Quintal said the ratification vote is a power grab by an illegitimate institution.
“The current constitution, especially in chapter two, takes away all authority from Métis communities, Métis settlements and card carrying Métis members or not.
“The MNA essentially is saying that they ultimately represent those Métis individuals or Métis communities. So our challenge is not necessarily with the MNA, more so with the government of Canada, because we believe that going down this path is going to open them to liability, to court challenges.”
Quintal wants the federal government to show up and make sure individual Métis communities are able to seek self-government if they choose.
“What we’re looking for from the prime minister and (Indigenous relations minister Marc Miller) is reassurances and verification that legislation of the MNA constitution is going to have limitations built into it so that Métis communities and settlements have their own ability to self-identify and self represent,” said Quintal.
If not, the MNA should prepare for legal battles, he said.
“Instead of fighting this in court, I could be using those dollars to build houses and education programs for my people,” he said.
“But the reality from our perspective is, again, it’s a fight that we’re prepared to have because it means everything to our community to be able to represent our own rights.”
Both leaders said MNA citizens should vote the way they want to.
“Should this vote pass now, Canada needs to really roll up their sleeves and prepare to consult with the Métis people and come to Alberta,” said Quintal.
“Consultation is going to be a key factor in this as an outcome. Our hope is that Canada does not rush to legislate this constitution.”
The MNA did its consulting, said Poitras.
“We’ve been out with our constitution for three rounds in our communities before we ever got to the point where it was our citizens who said, ‘no, take this to the vote,’” she said.
“So I just encourage all people to come out and vote.”
The MNA’s constitution can be read in its entirety online. MNA citizens aged 16 and older can vote online or in person until Nov. 30. More details on voting can be found on MNA’s website.