The court that handles claims against the federal government swatted Ottawa on the back of the head today and took 175 pages or so to state the constitutionally obvious. Essentially, what they said was that all people in Canada must be recognized, consulted and negotiated with by Ottawa when it makes decisions affecting our lives. (You can read the full judgment here.)
And by “all people,” I mean Métis, non-Status Indians, “Status” Indians without treaties, and Status Indians who make their homes off reserve. And by “decisions that affect our lives,” I mean environmental practices and policies, land use, forestry, healthcare, housing, hunting, fishing, trapping, resource development and sales, transportation policy, education, and, oh, well, pretty much everything governments put a finger into.
The estimates, by many accounts, put the number of those affected by today’s ruling at 600,000. Excitable people who have been posting responses to some of the coverage of the ruling seem to suggest the number might be closer to 13,000,000.
The numbers matter because the scope could feasibly change the identity of the nation. If we’re all Métis or Aboriginal in some way, then we’re consulting with ourselves about fiduciary responsibility and environmental protection and land claims, and theoretically we should get what’s fair and that will mean a big change for most of us. And let’s face it: when one party is reminded they have to take everyone in the other party into account, everyone is affected. Everyone wins. And everyone pays.
But I suspect there will be some dancing on the head of a pin ahead.
The Minister who heads the department that’s supposed to be handling Aboriginal Affairs says he’s reviewing the ruling. But, he gravely noted, it shouldn’t be interpreted to have anything to do with Aboriginal rights. It just opens the definition of “Indian” to include some people who have heretofore been known as “Métis,” along with those who have a sort of curious “Indian-without-Indian-identity” status. Analysts say that now means the feds will have to offer an explanation as to why some “Indians” are going to be treated differently than other “Indians.” But the probability remains that the treatment will be different.
Some native leaders, Manitoba Métis Federation chief David Chartrand among them, aren’t precisely laughing out loud about the ruling for other reasons. Chartrand notes that being identified as a “title Indian” under the Constitution isn’t exactly a ticket to the First Class lounge — or even to the airport. And he’s rightly very protective of the singular identity forged by the people born of the dueling factions of native and non-native, an identity he doesn’t want to see eroded by court decree.
So there will be some careful jockeying around the “relationship” we have with one another in the weeks, years, and aeons ahead.
The national chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, Betty Ann Lavallée, says this is a ruling about dignity, pride and self-worth. The man who launched the entire shooting match, Harry Daniels, is no longer with us to comment, but it was his fight and he was fierce about ensuring Ottawa lived up to its responsibilities so I suspect a smile might cross his lips.
Still, successive federal governments of this land have a history of spending money to dodge some of those responsibilities.
Let’s just say the strategy of divide-and-conquer took a hit today.