MNC was born to advocate for Métis federally following patriation of the Canadian Constitution
CBC News: Forty years ago in Regina, on the eve of a high-stakes constitutional conference on Indigenous rights, the Métis decided to go it alone.
Three Métis associations from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, the largest in the country, decided to ditch the Native Council of Canada and form a breakaway group, the fledgling Métis National Council (MNC). A day later, on March 9, 1983, the new group made its move. The MNC sued then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau in a last-minute bid to block the conference.
It was a risky play, but the Métis were in a position of strength, remembers Tony Belcourt, who is Métis from Lac Ste. Anne, Alta., and served as the Native Council’s founding president. “The Justice department understood right away they could not go forward,” Belcourt said.
Canada had patriated its Constitution a year earlier, capping a drawn-out struggle between Trudeau’s Liberals and a loose coalition of Indigenous lobby groups who fought to secure protections for treaty and Indigenous rights.
Belcourt, an adviser at the Native Council at the time of the split, said the Métis built momentum during that push. Rather than stand off in court, Trudeau offered them a seat at the table. “They had no choice,” said Belcourt.
He had helped bring Métis and non-status First Nations people together in 1971 under the umbrella of the Native Council, which later became the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, a union Belcourt says was rooted in strength in numbers. The two groups set their differences aside to build a national political movement, but by 1983 the relationship was frayed.
The final straw came when the Native Council’s board appointed its president Louis “Smokey” Bruyere and vice-president Bill Wilson, both representing non-status First Nations, to the Métis seats at the talks.
It was then, said Belcourt, that the Métis knew the time for strength in numbers had passed. “It was time for Métis nationalism,” he said. “We had to break away and speak for ourselves.”
Bright future or spent force?
This month, the MNC will mark 40 years since then with one of its founding members gone, amid multiple ongoing legal battles and sprawling new self-determination initiatives. The council now consists of associations from Saskatchewan and Alberta, who are both founding members, plus the Ontario and British Columbia branches that joined in the 1990s.
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The Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF) withdrew in 2021 following years of internal controversy over Métis citizenship, which was marked by bitter feuds and accusations of political backstabbing, betrayal and backroom deals. The MMF has long accused the Métis Nation of Ontario (MNO) of opening the doors to members who may have Indigenous ancestry, but aren’t Métis.
The MMF says the national council is a spent force, one fallen prey to a “pan-Indigenous agenda” that no longer represents the historic Métis Nation. “That organization’s purpose was served,” said MMF President David Chartrand in a recent statement to CBC News. “As we all know, it has lost its identity as representative of our proud Métis Nation.”
MNO President Margaret Froh rejects that argument and accuses MMF of promoting misinformation. As far as she’s concerned, the MNC, led by a new president and with an injection of young leaders, will press on without Manitoba. “There is a beautiful and very bright future for the Métis National Council,” said Froh in a recent interview. “I’m very excited to think about where we might be 40 years from now in advancing Métis rights.”
A spokesperson said MNC President Cassidy Caron was working on pre-budget consultations in recent weeks and planned to celebrate the anniversary later this month. She was not available for comment.
A truck with 3 wheels
Jean Teillet, a Métis author, lawyer and great-grandniece of Louis Riel, says the frantic rush in which the MNC was formed in 1983 meant flaws were baked into it then. She likes to think of the vehicle for Métis rights that was created on March 8, 1983, as a truck with three wheels. “It’s been galumphing along for a long time but it’s not established on any principled basis. It was established on need,” Teillet said. “It’s not something I think of as a great celebration moment.”
The MNC has made some advances but it still has major structural problems traceable to its hurried creation, according to Teillet. “I don’t think it works very well right now,” she said. “I’m thinking of it, at the moment, as pretty dysfunctional.”
She said Manitoba’s withdrawal, coupled with the exclusion of the eight Alberta Métis settlements which together occupy more than 500,000 hectares of territory, pose serious questions about the MNC’s future.
But that doesn’t mean she’s pessimistic about the future of the Métis Nation. She said a shakeup might even help. Put another way, she said, maybe it’s time for a new truck.
“Maybe this particular vehicle has served its purpose,” she said, “and they can get one that has four wheels.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brett Forester, Reporter
Brett Forester is a reporter with CBC Indigenous in Ottawa. He is a member of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation in southern Ontario who previously worked as a journalist with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.