Keith Henry says the 6,300-strong B.C. Métis Federation is tired of being “ignored” by the federal and provincial governments.
Henry, the president of the BCMF, told the Georgia Straight that his nonprofit society has repeatedly tried to gain recognition from both levels of government since its founding in 2011. However, cabinet ministers have responded by stating that the rival Métis Nation British Columbia represents all Métis people in the province.
According to Henry, the MNBC—which dates back to 1996, has 7,500 members, and is affiliated with the Métis National Council—doesn’t represent most BCMF members and only speaks for a small portion of the more than 60,000 B.C. residents who identify as Métis.
He argues that, much like the MNBC, the BCMF deserves to be consulted by governments and industry and receive access to publicly funded programs.
“I don’t know why governments are continuing to use this one-window approach,” Henry said by phone from a Vancouver coffee shop. “They don’t do that with First Nations, so I don’t know why they seem to think that’s okay to do with Métis. It’s completely discriminatory and unacceptable.”
Henry spoke to the Straight on January 28, the day he filed separate human-rights complaints alleging ongoing discrimination by both the Canadian and B.C. governments against the BCMF and Métis people in the province.
In a letter to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, Henry names John Duncan, the minister of aboriginal affairs and northern development, and the MNBC as respondents. Many Métis people can’t take advantage of federally funded employment and training services delivered by the MNBC, Henry claims, because they don’t meet the MNBC’s “narrow” definition of Métis identity.
The MNBC defines the Métis as the aboriginal people descended from the historic Métis Nation based in Western Canada. However, the Federal Court’s landmark ruling on January 8 that Métis are “Indians” under the Constitution Act confirms that the Métis definition should be “applied more broadly”, Henry writes in his complaint.
Through an assistant, MNBC president Bruce Dumont declined to be interviewed. Duncan was unavailable to comment, according to his press secretary.
In an October 2011 letter, David McArthur, Duncan’s former chief of staff, told Henry that the MNBC is the “representative organization for Métis people” in B.C. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada “will not be funding a separate organization representing the same population”, McArthur concluded.
Henry actually served as the MNBC’s CEO from 2003 to 2008. The BCMF came out of the Coalition of Concerned Métis Citizens, which was formed in 2009 by MNBC members concerned about their organization’s debt load and lack of transparency.
“Our position isn’t, ‘Get rid of MNBC,’” Henry said. “Our position is you have to finally admit that there’s another organization that’s representing a large number of Métis people, communities, and organizations.”
Henry’s provincial complaint names Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation Ida Chong and Minister of Children and Family Development Stephanie Cadieux as respondents. Representatives of the two told the Straight the ministers hadn’t seen the complaint and were unable to comment.
In the complaint filed with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, Henry claims that the ministers have denied the BCMF representation in policy-making decisions affecting Métis people. He also alleges that a provincial consultation guide titled Building Relationships With First Nations “discriminates” against Métis communities with rights protected by the Constitution Act.
“The Government of British Columbia does not consult with the Métis because it is of the view that no Métis community is capable of successfully asserting site specific Section 35 rights in British Columbia,” the guide states.
Henry told the Straight that one of the BCMF’s partner communities, Kelly Lake in northeast B.C., is a Métis settlement that was established before Canada had “effective control” of the area and continues to assert aboriginal title to its territory.
According to Henry, the BCMF doesn’t want to “destroy the governments” and would welcome mediation to resolve its complaints. He maintains the goal is for the federation and its members to take their “rightful place”.
“We represent legitimate communities, legitimate members, and we’re doing things,” Henry said. “We have no money. We’re doing it all on our own with our own volunteers, our own donations, and we’re proud of that fact. We’re not asking for a handout. We want a better way forward, with real, tangible results.”