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Concerns about assertion of Métis rights on the BC coast discussed at fisheries forum

June 14, 2024

Concerns were raised during the Nuu-chah-nulth Council of Ha’wiih Forum on Fisheries about the presence of Métis organizations amid efforts to protect the West Coast. Council of Ha’wiih Chair Wickaninnish, Cliff Atleo, speaks at the meeting in Port Alberni June 5. (Eric Plummer photo)

First Peoples Law Report: Ha-Shilth-Sa – Port Alberni, BC – Concerns are re-emerging among Nuu-chah-nulth leaders about the presence of Métis amid the assertion of Indigenous rights in British Columbia.

The issue came up during a recent Council of Ha’wiih Forum on Fisheries, which was hosted by the Tseshaht First Nation in Port Alberni June 4 and 5. During the meetings Tseshaht member Hugh Braker, who serves on the First Nations Summit Political Executive, encouraged Nuu-chah-nulth nations to sign a letter to the federal government that clarifies their rights to territorial resources.

“Given the nature of Nuu-chah-nulth society and culture, it would benefit if those letters were also signed by the hereditary chiefs,” stressed Braker during the meeting. “This land belongs to the Nuu-chah-nulth, it belongs to our hereditary chiefs, and they are the one who can decide who accesses the resources.”

“What in fact is happening concerning the Métis and their activities in British Columbia is potentially infringing on our rights,” said Council of Ha’wiih Chair Wickaninnish, Cliff Atleo. “Make no mistake about it, we are not going to be still and quiet about this issue.”

“The Métis are also putting a big strain on available dollars,” noted Braker. “When they take funds out of the pot, that leaves less funds for others.”

These comments follow controversy that arose earlier this year, when the BC Métis Federation’s Coastal Water Protectors hosted a conference in North Vancouver on protecting aquatic ecosystems. Before the Coastal Conference began on Jan. 20 the First Nations Leadership Council called for the event to be cancelled.

“BCMF has no right or authority to make decisions with respect to any First Nation’s territory in B.C., including how to manage and steward those lands and waters,” stated Chief Don Tom, vice-president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, which is part of the First Nations Leadership Council. “It is doubly insulting that this behaviour is directly funded and supported by the federal government.”

“The fact that the BC Métis Federation is receiving funding from the federal government for coastal conservation in B.C. is ridiculous and rejected by First Nations in B.C.,” added Terry Teegee, regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, in the same press release.

Tom and Teegee are referring to funding that the Coastal Water Protectors received from the Canadian Coast Guard and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. With a large increase in tanker traffic coming from the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, this support allowed the BCMF to start two projects: Co-Developing Community Response and the Aquatic Habitat Restoration Fund.

Keith Henry, president of the BC Métis Federation, has stated that the Métis are not trying to claim land or territory from First Nations in British Columbia. Their efforts are to support the protection of the environment and ocean, he said.  (BC Métis Federation photo)

Along with over 100 First Nations and Indigenous communities, the BC Métis Federation signed a Mutual Benefits Agreement in support of the pipeline’s twinning, which nearly triples its petroleum pumping capacity to 890,000 barrels a day destined for the West Coast. These confidential agreements bring training, funding and capacity building to the Indigenous groups that gave formal support to the pipeline expansion.

The BCMF has not disclosed how much it got from supporting the project, but said that what the Métis received is less than one per cent of what First Nations across Alberta and British Columbia were granted by TMX. Amid protest from local First Nations in January, the BCMF also noted that the “objective of the conference was simply to raise awareness of environmental issues affecting B.C. coastal waters and to engage participants to take action to protect the coastline for future generations.”

Métis have a mixed European and First Nations ancestry, dating back to a time when fur traders married Indigenous peoples of the prairies and Great Lakes region. The Métis have a common culture and ancestral language, Michif, which is mostly a combination of Cree and French. Michif is still spoken in parts of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, North Dakota and Montana, and in 2016 Statistics Canada identified 1,170 fluent speakers.

By the early 1800s historical documents show that a distinct society of “half breeds” was evident in the plains, claiming rights to land and the buffalo they adeptly hunted on horseback. A community developed in what is now Manitoba, and by the late 1860s the encroachment of colonial powers sparked the Red River Rebellion in the years after the forming of the Dominion of Canada.

Métis rights are enshrined in Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution, which identifies them as one of the three “aboriginal peoples of Canada” alongside First Nations and Inuit, although the act does not define what exactly these rights are.

Addressing concerns around the assertion of Indigenous rights in the province, ahead of the January Coastal Conference Keith Henry, president of the BC Métis Federation, said his community has been unfairly attacked by First Nations groups.

“There continues to be an incorrect public narrative that the BC Métis Federation’s work is an expression of efforts to claim land and territory from First Nations. This is not true, and the Coastal Conference has been created to support environmental and water protection behaviours of our Métis community,” wrote Henry. “BC Métis Federation is not claiming water jurisdiction, but our members and community has mandated our leadership to support environmental activities.”

According to Canada’s 2021 Census, 97,865 people in British Columbia identified as Métis.

By Eric Plummer