The North Slave Métis Alliance (NSMA) has been told once again it has no right to establish a land claim or have access to caribou harvesting rights and devolution money because its members are not a distinct Aboriginal group indigenous to the region, according to federal documents obtained by the Northern Journal.
NSMA president Bill Enge was told by the federal department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AANDC) in February that the Métis organization north of Great Slave Lake “has not provided sufficient evidence to establish the existence of an ancestrally-based, present-day Métis community in the North Slave area with links to a historic Métis community in that area.”
“The NSMA have not established a credible claim to s.35 Métis rights which would support recognition of the NSMA as a distinct s.35 Métis rights-holding community,” the letter to Enge states.
Enge said he has no idea why their evidence has been rejected.
“I provided to Canada through Aboriginal Affairs a binder that contained my genealogy connecting me to the North Slave area and the Great Slave Lake area, plus historical documents showing use prior to effective European control being established in this area,” he told The Journal.
“We requested a meeting with AANDC officials involved with the review of the documents so we could hear first-hand from the reviewers how they arrived at their conclusion. Show us where the gaps are in the information provided…We have a right to secure and fill in the gaps so a clear picture can emerge,” he said.
That meeting has yet to take place, but AANDC officials told The Journal it is in the process of being scheduled.
“AANDC recently completed an assessment of North Slave Métis Alliance asserted s.35 rights in the North Slave, and is currently coordinating meeting dates to discuss the results of the assessment with the NSMA in the near future,” spokesperson Dawn Curtis said in an email. “Once this meeting has taken place, AANDC will be in a better position to answer some of the questions you’ve posed.”
Enge and the NSMA’s legal counsel presented their case to the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Affairs on Oct. 17 of last year looking for recognition as a distinct Aboriginal group with an indigenous territory north of Great Slave Lake.
At the meeting, Enge argued that over 50 of the NSMA’s 500 members, including himself, trace their ancestry back to “the founding father of the Métis of the Great Slave Lake area,” Francois Beaulieu.
Those “Métis of the Great Slave Lake area” include both Métis on the south and north sides of the lake, Enge said – one group that has divided itself in recent years into two contemporary organizations, the NWT Métis Nation (NWTMN) and the NSMA.
Enge said it is unfair that the federal government has engaged the NWTMN – formerly the South Slave Métis Tribal Council – in a land claims process while leaving out the NSMA.
“The common law supports that two groups representing one larger ethnic community is acceptable,” he told the senate committee.
“The problem is that NSMA cannot get the Crown, neither federal nor territorial, to engage with us. Canada and the government of the Northwest Territories have chosen to engage with the Northwest Territories Métis Nation, our cousins to the south, but not with us. The South Slave Métis Tribal Council, as it was known when it was originally formed, and the North Slave Métis Alliance both became legal entities around the same time. We have never been told why the Crown engaged with them and not us. This situation is extremely frustrating.”
Enge told the senate committee chair, Gerry St. Germain, that the NWTMN agreement doesn’t apply to Métis living in Yellowknife.
“It specifies which communities this land and negotiation agreement applies to. In that context it is Fort Smith, Hay River and Fort Resolution, to the exclusion of Yellowknife. We had no choice but to form an organization to assert our own rights because we were not included as a community under the auspices of that claim,” he said. “First, we are a separate community north of the lake, therefore we see ourselves as a separate entity geographically…and second, we were not a part of their land and resources negotiation or agreement.”
According to the NWTMN, many members of the NSMA are eligible to be beneficiaries under the South Slave claim – which is still under negotiation – based on genealogy that connects them to the communities of Fort Resolution, Fort Smith or Hay River, even if they live in Yellowknife.
While Yellowknife does not exist as a “community” within the NWTMN claim, a Yellowknife affiliate of the NWTMN – the North Arm Métis Council – is entirely composed of indigenous Métis members originally from the South Slave communities who are legitimate members of the NWTMN and included as beneficiaries of the NWTMN lands and resources agreement.
Those eligible to join the NWTMN include Enge himself, who according to family records obtained by The Journal is a descendant of Pierre Mercredi, with familial ties to Fort Smith and Fort Resolution in the NWT.
Not the first rejection
This is not the first time the NSMA has been told by Ottawa that it can’t start a land claims process in the North Slave.
Following the formation of the group in 1996, then-minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Ronald Irwin instructed the NSMA to join either the South Slave Métis (NWTMN) claims process or the Tlicho (Dogrib) negotiations.
“With respect to the Métis in the Yellowknife area who are not eligible for a comprehensive land claim or a treaty entitlement process, those who are indigenous to the South Slave region should participate in the South Slave Métis Tribal Council process. For any other eligible persons, a separate Métis process in the North Slave region will not take place,” Irwin said.
“The interests of the Métis of Dogrib descent…should properly be addressed within the Dogrib comprehensive land claim and self government negotiations,” he added.
Despite Irwin’s instructions, the NSMA went ahead with a second attempt following both a restructuring of its own executive – after ousting its first president, Clem Paul, from the position – and the appointment of a new federal minister.
Like Irwin, his successor Jane Stewart said in 1999, “There will not be a separate, ‘Métis-only,’ land claim process in the North Slave region.”
Enge said 90 per cent of the NSMA membership are eligible to be part of either the Tlicho, Sahtu or NWTMN land and resource agreements, but deserve to have their own claim in their own region.
“Why are we being treated differently in the North Slave area than our other Métis counterparts? We believe AANDC is treating us with a double standard,” Enge told The Journal.
“At the end of the day, in the name of equality, fairness and what’s right, the North Slave Métis people have the right to choose where they want to assert their rights in the NWT.”
NSMA formed to start claims process
The NSMA was formed in 1996 with the intention of realizing a land claim and self-government agreement for its beneficiaries.
For the first two years, the organization was beset with infighting among members, with an eventual court case removing Paul from the executive and allowing Enge to step up into the position with Sholto Douglas as vice president.
During the first tumultuous years, which saw a proliferation of overlapping and conflicting Métis organizations pop up in Yellowknife, entire families left the NSMA’s membership, many to join the South Slave negotiations or Tlicho claim, as instructed by Irwin.
Years later in 2004, Enge and Douglas tried vigorously to have the North Slave Métis claim attached to the Tlicho claims process, but were unsuccessful.
Court cases ongoing
On Mar. 5, the NSMA launched a judicial review application against the federal government over its lack of inclusion in the NWT devolution agreement-in-principle (AiP) – three weeks after receiving the letter from AANDC.
A draft agreement of the AiP was signed a week later following the completion of negotiations with Canada on Mar. 11.
Though the NSMA was originally included in devolution discussions in 2002 as part of the Aboriginal Summit – a coalition that had active participation from all NWT Aboriginal governments, except the Dehcho First Nations – its invitation to sit at the table was eventually rescinded.
“Before disbanding, the Aboriginal Summit itself changed its membership rules so as to include only those Aboriginal governments recognized by the government of Canada as a distinct people with resolved or unresolved claims,” officials at the NWT devolution office told The Journal in an email. “This disqualified the NSMA from membership in the Aboriginal Summit. After the Aboriginal Summit disbanded in 2005, the recognized governments that had been a part of the Aboriginal Summit participated in devolution negotiations independently.”
But in late March, Enge said NSMA received a letter from both the GNWT and the federal government setting up a meeting to consult with the North Slave Métis on devolution. That meeting is to take place on Apr. 24.
He said it’s confusing that his group is now being sought for consultation as an Aboriginal government when just weeks earlier it was told it does not have constitutionally guaranteed Aboriginal rights.
“We’re still trying to clarify from them what rationale there is for consulting with us in light of the fact that they said we don’t have section 35 rights,” he said. “We’re a little mystified as to what kind of consultation the Crown has in mind.”
The NSMA also has an ongoing court case against the territorial government over its exclusion from the groups allowed to hunt Bathurst caribou, for which there remain hunting restrictions.
The Métis were left out of last year’s limited harvest, which was opened only to Tlicho and Yellowknives Dene hunters.
Enge argued before the NWT Supreme Court last July that the NSMA should have been consulted on the caribou hunting issue based on their Aboriginal rights. Justice Shannon Smallwood has yet to make a ruling on the case.
Both the federal and territorial governments declined comment on both cases because they are before the courts.
Enge said the NSMA will continue to go through the legal process if that’s the only route available to them to be recognized as a distinct Aboriginal group.
“We’re not going to go away. We’re going to assert our rights, and it’s unfortunate that our rights are being determined through the court systems now,” he said.