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A future where we belong

Both the federal government and the provinces must work with the Metis to affirm their rights.

Blake Desjarlais, MP

There is an old saying in the Metis community, "we live in both worlds, but belong to none." It comes from our grandparents and the generations before us who had access to the traditions and knowledge of our European and First Nation parents, but often felt as though they belonged to neither and were rejected by both. We would come to be known as Otepemisawak: the people who own themselves. The saying remains true today as it describes the challenges Metis people continue to face in working collaboratively with provincial and federal jurisdictions, caught as we are in a "jurisdictional wasteland" between the two.

For much of their colonial existence, both levels of government  have rejected any responsibility for Metis – something that was supposed to change in 2016, when the Supreme Court of Canada clarified once and for all, in Daniels v. Canada, that it is the federal government that has a fiduciary responsibility to the Metis. 

Even so, Alberta is unique in that it has assumed some responsibility for Metis by way of the Metis Settlements Act. For years, this state of affairs left us in a situation the courts aptly describe as "proverbial football passing."

My ancestors, from Louis Riel to Gabriel Dumont, to my Chapan, Ole Charlie Delorme and his lesser known Metis relatives, fought for basic rights. Following the 1869 and 1885 Resistances led by Riel, Canada began a process of overt rejection toward Metis people. The infamous scrip system ended up dispossessing much of the Metis peoples of their land and forcing many into poverty and hiding. They lived on road allowance, in shanty towns, and were subjected to raids by the RCMP and angry euro-Canadian townsfolk — experiences vividly described by Maria Campbell in her memoire “Halfbreed.” The  decades in the early 20th century, were filled with incredible hardship, starvation, and landlessness with no government to turn to.

Having endured and survived these injustices, the Metis people would renew their call for dignity and land.

Ole Charlie Delorme was among many who’d had enough of being pushed off the land, of the attacks, and of the government ignoring his people. He would become a state “squatter” living on the lands outside of the Cree reserve at Fishing Lake. He organized the largest gathering of Halfbreed people since the end of the failed Catholic-federal Metis reserve at St. Paul Des Metis. Hundreds gathered outside of Frog Lake, Alberta, to demand, by petition, the right to land for Metis people. My great grandfather Charlie Delorme was among them. Their petition was tabled with the provincial government in the early 20th century, largely in recognition of  rumours the federal government would grant control of land and resources to the newly established province of Alberta by the Natural Resource Transfers Act (NRTA) of 1930 — a move akin to the sale of Rupert’s Land to the Dominion of Canada. With the help of the remarkable folks we call “the Famous Five”, the Metis would organize and demand the Alberta government provide relief.

Metis people in Alberta continued their push for an answer to their demands for land. The province began what would be become the first of many jurisdictional arguments with the federal government. When the province realized it would be forced to deal with the destitute Metis, it began to act, first by tabling the Ewing Commission to investigate what the Metis had been saying all along, namely that they were robbed of their means and left to live in poverty. In the absence of any federal support, the government of Alberta established 12 colonies  for the betterment of the Metis people. Destitute Metis families from across the prairies would hear of the plan to establish lands for them and many came to Fishing Lake and elsewhere to populate the newly formed land bases. In 1938, in the model of Canada’s Indian Act, the province  passed the Metis Betterment Act to govern these settlements like mini fiefdoms.

In 1975, the Metis settlements would again rise up against the oppressive Betterment Act and its provincial “Indian agents” called “supervisors.”  They sued the government for multiple breaches of the Act, which led to the adoption of new legislation in 1989 that is still in effect today. Only after a century of federal neglect, and insufficient provincial legislation, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized Metis people within the jurisdiction of the federal government. Thus,  the Metis of Alberta, and in particular the members of the Metis settlements, find themselves again caught between provincial legislation that does not and cannot wholly recognize the Indigenous quality of Metis people in Alberta, and a federal government  that continues its neglect of Metis settlement people, conveniently citing the excuse of existing provincial legislation.

But there is hope. During my appointment as National-Director of the Metis Settlements General Council (MSGC), I advocated for a mutual plan for Alberta’s unique Metis people, one that sought to clarify a path forward, which culminated in the 2017 and 2018 MOU and framework agreement between MSGC and Canada.

Ultimately, to achieve reconciliation, the Metis in Alberta need a wholesome, unique, and distinct trilateral discussion between groups who represent Metis in Alberta, the province and, at long last, the federal government. That would hold the promise of a future of no more halves but of wholes, with Metis rights recognized and affirmed under s.35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.

Much work remains, but with earnest support from both provincial and federal governments, we can finally imagine that future where we truly belong to a home we can call our own.