OTTAWA – Canada’s 600,000 Metis and non-status Indians are indeed “Indians” under the Constitution, the Supreme Court of Canada declared Thursday in a long-awaited landmark decision more than 15 years in the making.
“It is the federal government to whom they can turn,” the unanimous 9-0 ruling said.
The high court was also asked to rule on whether the federal government has the same responsibility to them as to status Indians and Inuit, and whether they have a right to be consulted by the government on their rights and needs.
No need, the court said.
“It was already well established in Canadian law that the federal government was in a fiduciary relationship with Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples and that the federal government had a duty to consult and negotiate with them when their rights were engaged,” said Justice Rosalie Abella, writing for the court.
“Restating this in declarations would be of no practical utility.”
The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples joined with several individuals, including Metis leader Harry Daniels, in taking the federal government to court in 1999 to allege discrimination because they were not considered “Indians” under the Constitution.
Some 17 years later, the ruling is sure to have an impact on the relationship between the federal government and 600,000 Metis and off-reserve Indians across the country.
Daniels died in 2004, and his son Gabriel was added as a plaintiff the following year.
“I’m overwhelmed, I have a heavy heart right now,” an elated Gabriel Daniels said after the decision was handed down.
“I am just thinking about my dad. I’m not going to start crying… He would be climbing the walls … he would be happy but he’d be focused on things to come.”
In the moments following the decision, the building’s foyer filled with Metis and aboriginal stakeholders, all of them barely able to contain their delight. As they spoke, whoops of joy and hollers of celebration echoed through the building.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the decision a landmark ruling with broad consequences and said his government will work in partnership with indigenous peoples.
“We, of course, respect the Supreme Court decision and we’ll be engaging, not just on our own but with indigenous leadership to figure out what the path is forward,” he said at a news conference in London, Ont.
“I can guarantee you one thing: the path forward will be together.”
One Metis leader said the ruling would have implications for future negotiations with the government over lucrative natural resources.
Ron Quintal, president of the Fort McKay Metis Community in Alberta, said his community is “completely surrounded” by oilsands development.
“The oilsands and government have always walked over top of us and it’s been hard for us to get any kind of consultation or any type of mediation for that matter with the oil companies,” he said in an interview.
“This is going to allow us to have an actual voice where industry and government have no choice but to work with our people.”
Abella said Thursday’s ruling was another chapter “in the pursuit of reconciliation and redress” in the long history between Canada and its Indigenous People.
“The constitutional changes, the apologies for historic wrongs, a growing appreciation that aboriginal and non-aboriginal people are partners in Confederation . . . all indicate that reconciliation with all of Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples is Parliament’s goal,” Abella wrote.
Abella cited the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
The government considered Metis to be Indians as far back as 1818 and the notion was upheld after Confederation, Abella wrote in a ruling that offered a sweeping review of government inquiries and studies of aboriginal relations dating back decades.
“Both federal and provincial governments have, alternately, denied having legislative authority over non-status Indians and Metis,” the ruling said.
“This results in these indigenous communities being in a jurisdictional wasteland with significant and obvious disadvantaging consequences,” it added, which included depriving them of programs, services and other government benefits.
Jason Madden, lawyer for Metis National Council, an intervener, said the ruling was a “game changer” and a “slam dunk” because it upheld the notion that the government has a duty to negotiate with Metis.
“There is no way that the federal government can avoid or hide from this issue any longer,” he said in an interview. “It’s got to be positive negotiations with Metis just as much as there is with First Nations.”
A timeline of the case:
1999: Harry Daniels, Gabriel Daniels, Leah Gardner, Terry Joudrey and the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples file suit against the federal government to resolve the question of which level of government has jurisdiction over Metis and non-status Indians.
2004: Harry Daniels, former president of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, dies as the case makes it way through the courts.
2005: Gabriel Daniels, Harry’s son, is added as a party.
2013: Federal Court Justice Michael Phelan offers the plaintiffs a partial victory, ruling that Metis and non-status Indians are “Indians” under a section of the 1867 Constitution Act. He declines to rule that the federal government owes a fiduciary duty to Metis and non-status Indians as aboriginal people or that they have a right to be consulted by the government on their rights and needs as aboriginals.
2014: A three-judge panel of the Federal Court of Appeal grants a federal appeal in part by deleting the reference to non-status Indians in Phelan’s ruling. The justices also decline to find the fiduciary duty or a right to consultation.
2014: The Supreme Court of Canada agrees to hear an appeal of the appeal court ruling.
2016: The Supreme Court rules 9-0 that Metis and non-status Indians are Indians under the Constitution and that the federal government’s fiduciary responsibility to the country’s Aboriginal Peoples is well established under existing law.