By Belle Hatfield
Since 1999, the Yarmouth-based Kespu’kwitk Métis Council has been working to achieve recognition for its 2,500 members as aboriginal Métis people from the federal and provincial governments under Section 35, Constitution Act of Canada. The council’s director of economic development, Ron Surette, says members can trace their ancestry back to early Acadian settlers and the Mi’kmaq women they took as their wives. It is one of several Métis organizations operating within southwestern Nova Scotia.
The council recently took its case before the Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples. The mandate of the committee is to examine legislation and matters relating to the Aboriginal peoples of Canada.
Surette and his wife, Sheila, a council elder, appeared before the committee Nov. 6. They were called to appear at the same time as a representative of a group from Cape Sable Island, also claiming Métis status. The two groups’ stories couldn’t be more different. The Cape Island group claims to be descended from the Wampanoag, a Massachusetts-based tribe, members of which were given land grants by the British on Cape Sable Island. It serves to highlight the complexity of the arguments of the disparate groups who are seeking aboriginal/Métis status in Canada and the rights and privileges that come with it.
In a prepared statement read into the Senate record, Surette said, “As eastern Métis, our organization has not been recognized either provincially or federally as it pertains to rights. No tax exemptions, no hunting and fishing rights, no educational grants/bursaries, nor assistance for small business.”
He pointed out that the assistance the council has been able to access has been due to its status as a non-profit organization and that, since 2009, when Service Canada handed responsibility for its job creation partnership program over to the provincial government, the council has been unable to obtain funding under that program.
A Jan. 8 decision from the federal court, which ruled that Métis and non-status Indians qualify as Indians under the Constitution Act of 1867, is a step in that direction, Surette told the Vanguard last week. But that ruling merely clarifies the jurisdiction of responsibility for those who have been acknowledged to be non-status and Métis. In order to sit at the table, Métis groups in Atlantic Canada have to be recognized. The Kespu’kwitk council has turned to the courts in its quest for recognition.
In response to a question about the chances that groups like the Kespu’kwitk Métis Council will be recognized by governments and other Aboriginal peoples, Surette told the Senate hearings, “The Métis of Nova Scotia are living like our forefathers, but nobody wants to identify us as a group. We have to prove it in order to identify ourselves. … somebody has to break the law and we have to have a court case to prove that there are Métis in our area.”
The local council is awaiting a decision on its appeal of the December 2011 conviction under the fisheries act for an offence that occurred in 2004. The council funded the historical research used at trial. Surette told the Senate hearings that the research suggests, “The Métis existed in Nova Scotia and North America since the French landed on our shore late in the 1400s and early 1500s … The French could not survive in the hard winters. The Mi’kmaq had to take them in to protect them and they married Mi’kmaq women.”
At trial the judge found that the date of effective European control was 1670 and that there was no Métis community in the area prior to that date. A decision on the appeal could be rendered by the end of this month.
Though more people are now stepping forward to claim Métis status, Senator Nick Sibbeston observed that “there was a period of time where native people did not want to admit they were native and did everything, as it were, to not be native … For hundreds and hundreds of years maybe you did not want to be recognized or known as native people, and suddenly you change your view.”
In response, Surette said, “You hit the nail right on the head, senator. Hiding it or denying it — or everything else under the sun — that you are not aboriginal or Metis. In my day [to acknowledge it] would have been slaughter.”
Surette addressed the changes that have occurred and the challenges still faced.
“We have very successful Métis communities but still some people hesitate to be identified Métis. Even though the genealogy proves it, they still deny it; but it is improving all the time. We are simply looking to be recognized by our governments. We have to work too hard to be recognized. They do not even want to talk to us. That is the problem we have today. They think we do not exist,” he said.
In conclusion Surette urged the committee to consider initiating an inquiry that might lead to a unified system for handling these issues going forward.
“Everyone should be treated equally,” he said.