OTTAWA — Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree says the federal government could enter into treaties with Métis nations after the passage of a bill that affirms their right to self-governance.
"Right now, there is no treaty currently in place. But … we can at some point enter into treaties," he said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.
"We will at some point get to that stage. And if we do, then obviously there's much more deeper consultation that needs to take place."
The minister's comments come as Bill C-35, which would affirm Métis rights to self-determination and self-governance in Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan, receives steady criticism from First Nations groups concerned about land and resource rights being granted to Métis groups without their consent.
The Chiefs of Ontario, an organization that represents 133 First Nations in the province, travelled to Ottawa in mid-September to discuss its concerns with politicians.
The group says that the bill would irreparably damage the inherent and treaty rights of First Nations, and that Canada should have consulted them on the bill.
But the Métis Nation of Ontario says the bill is a positive step forward that does nothing to harm other Indigenous groups — and says the idea that land and resource rights could be on the table later on is a good thing.
Anandasangaree said that Bill C-35, which has been referred to a House of Commons committee for study, is "essentially a framework."
It "really doesn't recognize land rights. It doesn't recognize harvesting or any other rights that are in the Constitution," he said.
"And we look forward to input from First Nations and all those who are impacted."
He added that the duty to consult is not triggered by the bill itself, "because it's really a recognition of the governance structure that will happen when there's a treaty in place."
But the Chiefs of Ontario says that's exactly what one of its main concerns is: that future treaties signed by Métis communities and Canada could concern land rights that encroach on its territories.
A spokesperson for Anandasangaree did not directly answer when asked a series of followup questions about the potential for land-based treaties with Métis communities, instead pointing to the contents of Bill C-35.
"We look forward to continuing to work in partnership with each Métis government to co-develop approaches that deliver on their priorities for reconciliation and support their visions of a better future for their citizens," a statement from the minister's office read.
The Assembly of First Nations, which represents more than 630 First Nations across Canada, has also expressed opposition to the bill.
That organization unanimously passed a resolution at its annual general assembly in July to protect First Nations from what it calls "unfounded Métis rights" through advocacy and meetings with the prime minister.
The resolution also included a demand for Canada to cease all negotiations with the Métis Nation of Ontario until First Nations are meaningfully consulted.
The motion was introduced by Nipissing First Nation Chief Scott McLeod, who has been a vocal critic of both the Métis Nation of Ontario and Bill C-53.
"(The bill is) problematic on so many different levels for us," said McLeod in an interview.
"And their refusal to even talk to First Nations about this issue is extremely disappointing. It really suggests that Canada is regressing back to the old days where they think they know better than First Nations."
Métis Nation of Ontario president Margaret Froh said that's not the case.
First Nations don't need to be consulted on Bill C-53 because it deals with internal matters in Métis communities, she said, and the legislation will only cover internal governance structures, child welfare and citizenship.
Other Indigenous nations weren't consulted on self-governance agreements First Nations recently signed with Canada, she pointed out.
"It's a very standard thing."
Some First Nations deny the very existence of Métis communities in Ontario.
Froh noted a landmark 2003 Supreme Court decision that first established Métis constitutional rights. Her organization points to the ruling as proof that Métis communities exist in Ontario.
The decision recognized that two Métis hunters near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., had the constitutional right to hunt as Indigenous Peoples, and they weren't subject to Ontario hunting regulations.
The Métis Nation of Ontario points to five more historic communities in the province, as far east as the Ottawa River.
A report by the Robinson Huron Waawiindamaagewin organization, which represents 21 member First Nations around Lake Huron, examined Métis Nation of Ontario's claims.
In a statement about the report in May, Ontario Regional Chief Glen Hare said the evidence the Métis group points to as proof for the existence of the communities is "deeply flawed."
He accused the Métis Nation of Ontario of relying on "changing the identities of First Nations individuals into Métis" in order to justify its conclusions.
McLeod pointed to that research as one reason why any treaties the government might pursue with the Ontario Métis would be fraught with dissent from First Nations.
"We've been accused by a few members of the (Métis Nation) as having a lateral violence toward them or being in some kind of denial about the existence of Métis," said McLeod.
"That's the furthest thing from what we are. We do recognize that Métis have rights and do have a history, but it's just not in our territories."
Still, Froh said she remains hopeful, including when it comes to potential discussions with Canada around land or resources.
"It's all going to be based on the facts of history," she said.
But, she stressed, any conversations or negotiations will include First Nations.
"If you've got concerns, put them on the table. Let's provide some answers. Let's have some dialogue," she said.
"It's my hope that we can re-establish those positive working relations for the benefit of all Indigenous Peoples in Ontario — First Nations and Métis alike."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 12, 2023.
Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press