Around 400 members of the Métis community gathered in Sault Ste. Marie this week to take part in a rights conference that had an eye on the past as well as the future.
This four-day affair, which began Sunday and wrapped up Wednesday, served as a major milestone for the Métis Nation of Ontario (MNO), which is celebrating its 30th year as a governing body.
According to Region 4 councillor Mitch Case, this week’s conference also proved to be the largest MNO gathering since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, giving them a unique opportunity to discuss issues related to Métis self-determination while simultaneously celebrating their unique cultural heritage.
“So that was our thought, let’s have a real good celebration,” Case told the Sault Star Tuesday afternoon at the Delta Hotel, where much of the conference took place.
“We’re doing some important work, but let’s hear from our musicians, let’s provide a stage for our cultural people to perform. It was a really good time.”
While this week’s conference featured a wide range of speakers, most of the lectures revolved around the unifying theme of Métis self-governance, with the event coming 20 years after the landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling in R. v. Powley.
This case stemmed from a 1993 incident when Steve and Roddy Powley were charged with killing a moose near Sault Ste. Marie without a proper hunting licence.
The father-son pair pleaded not guilty to the charges based on their Métis heritage, which they argued gives them the right to hunt in such a manner alongside other Indigenous groups.
This event resulted in a prolonged legal battle that made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2003 that the Powleys’ actions were protected by Section 35 of the 1982 Constitution Act.
One of the Powleys’ major public advocates during their ongoing court struggles was MNO founding president Tony Belcourt, who attended this week’s conference in the Sault to share his insight on this case and how it can apply to other Métis rights struggles moving forward.
To Case, the presence of Belcourt and other high-profile leaders like Audrey Poitras, the recently retired president of the Métis Nation of Alberta, provided this week’s conference with a wealth of wisdom that will hopefully inspire some of its younger members to spearhead these major ongoing MNO projects.
“We have a whole lot to be proud of, a whole lot to be excited about and a whole lot of work to do,” Case said. “But if we remain united, dedicated and excited, we’ll get it all done.”
Looking ahead, Case said one of the MNO’s biggest priorities over the next couple months is advocating for Bill C-53, a piece of federal legislation that would recognize the internal self-government rights of Métis groups in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario if passed.
The passage of Bill C-53 has become a major point of contention for some other Indigenous groups, with five First Nations chiefs visiting Ottawa last week to publicly oppose the legislation.
This delegation included the likes of Nipissing First Nation Chief Scott McLeod, who told lawmakers that the government hasn’t done its due diligence in consulting with First Nations and ensuring that the communities being claimed by the MNO are truly historical.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler went even further by stating that Bill C-53 would damage First Nations’ rights for generations and sour their overall relationship with the federal government.
However, Case maintains that Bill C-53 represents a necessary step in the evolution of the MNO, which has grown over the last three decades to represent over 25,000 members and must be properly recognized as such.
“We’ve got 30 years in the Métis Nation of Ontario building this accountable government that provides all of these services and employs all these people and runs all these community offices,” he said.
“It’s just an absurd fit to be, legally, the same as the Rotary Club or something. We’re not a club. We’re a nation of people.”