OTTAWA — The Liberal minister of Crown-Indigenous relations is defending a bill that would formalize several Métis self-governance agreements, after more than a month of heated debate between Indigenous leaders at a parliamentary committee.
While the leaders of Métis groups in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario say the legislation would unlock new opportunities and foster a new relationship with Ottawa, prominent First Nations voices are raising concerns about irreparable damage to treaty rights.
They say that with the bill, the federal government is essentially giving Métis organizations a blank sheet of paper to write treaties on, with no oversight.
On Thursday, it was Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree's turn to take questions at the House of Commons Indigenous and northern affairs committee.
Anandasangaree said Métis have been fighting for their rights for centuries, and a Liberal government bill aims to address the wrongs of the past.
He stressed that the co-developed piece of legislation is in line with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
"It comes in the spirit of reconciliation. It is something we've been working on for many, many years," he said.
Still, First Nations and some Métis groups are opposed to it.
The Chiefs of Ontario, a group representing the heads of Ontario First Nations, has gone so far as to say that some Métis communities in that province have no historical basis to exist, and do not meet the legal threshold to be recognized as having rights.
Nipissing First Nation Chief Scott McLeod, a member of that group, told the committee earlier this month that it should remove the Métis Nation of Ontario from the legislation.
He said Thursday it is not the federal government's job to determine who is or who isn't Indigenous.
"But that is exactly what they are doing," he said in a written statement
"They are legislating Nations into existence who never existed in our territories, and whose claims to be Indigenous are questionable."
Anandasanagaree and the Métis Nation of Ontario have both stressed that its membership lists have been vetted by a third party. It removed 6,000 members who they say did not meet membership criteria in June of this year.
The Assembly of First Nations, which represents 630 First Nations across Canada, is calling for the bill to be withdrawn altogether.
The assembly's interim national chief, Joanna Bernard, told the committee on Tuesday that "First Nations have raised serious, credible concerns about the potential impacts of Bill C-53 advancing without proper consultation."
The Métis Nation of Ontario has said the bill is a positive step forward that does nothing to harm other Indigenous groups, arguing that the idea that land and resource rights could be on the table later on is a good thing, despite First Nations' opposition to a potential land-based treaty.
Its president, Margaret Froh, told the committee last month that her organization has been working hard to dispel myths and misinformation being spread about the bill.
Anandasangaree mostly reiterated those sentiments during his committee appearance Thursday.
He said Métis have had to listen to people who are trying to "deny their existence," adding he believes the concerns that have been raised are based on misconceptions.
"Today, I'm here to clear those up," he said.
"I urge the members of this committee to come together to recognize that the fight for rights is an important one and one that should be bipartisan."
Other Métis organizations, including the Manitoba Métis Federation, the Métis Nation-Saskatchewan and the Métis Nation British Columbia, are among those raising concerns about the Ontario group.
But the president of the Métis National Council, Cassidy Caron, told the committee last week that she supports the bill.
So does Métis Nation of Alberta president Andrea Sandmaier, who said that failing to pass the bill would "hurt Métis people and the advancement of Indigenous rights across the board."
Amid concerns that the bill could open the door to allowing land or harvesting rights for Métis, Anandasangaree stressed on Thursday that that's not what the legislation does, though future treaties could be negotiated.
The minister had told The Canadian Press last month that the federal government could enter into treaties with Métis nations later on, and "we will at some point get to that stage." At that time, more consultation would need to take place, he said.
Pressed on Thursday about whether or not future treaties could affect the rights of other Indigenous Peoples, Anandasangaree brought the conversation back to Bill C-53 and its contents.
The minister was asked whether the government bears any responsibility for the animosity between First Nations and Métis groups.
He said in response that the bill was co-developed with the Métis nations that it applies to.
He also acknowledged that Canadian governments — including his own — have reinforced colonialism in the past.
"In this particular case? I don't believe so. I believe this is moving forward in the spirit of reconciliation."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2023.
Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press