Tuesday, February 7, 2017
Group shot of Metis Nation of Ontario President and alumna Margaret Froh with with Indigenous students past, present and future

Métis Nation of Ontario President and alumna Margaret Froh, first row and second from left, with Indigenous students past, present and future.

Margaret Froh spoke at the Faculty of Law about the historical struggles of the Métis, recent legal victories, and what the future holds

By Peter Boisseau

A day after the Quebec City mosque shootings, representatives of Métis communities met with cabinet ministers on Parliament Hill and reflected on the tragedy just inflicted on a new generation of Canadians, Métis Nation of Ontario President Margaret Froh, told a hushed audience at the University of Toronto law school.

The Jan. 30 meeting in Ottawa was supposed to be the first-ever Crown and Métis nation summit with a prime minister, part of the commitment Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, made last December after meeting with national Indigenous leaders.

“Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to be there. The shooting in Quebec and that aftermath pulled him away,” said Froh, a U of T law school graduate, Class of 1996.

“As a result, we met with key cabinet ministers and had a chance to talk about hate and intolerance, and spend some time paying respects to the families in Quebec.”

What had meant to be a landmark day of reconciliation also became a sombre reflection on another tragic anniversary—the January 2016 shootings in the predominantly Métis community of La Loche, Sask., that killed four people and wounded seven others.

Educating the country about who the Métis are—and dispelling the myths surrounding them—is one of the biggest challenges, said Froh.

The impoverished northern community has some of the highest suicide rates in Saskatchewan and is plagued by a lack of opportunity, especially for youth. The shooter was a troubled 17-year-old teen from the area.

“It was a very emotional day for a lot of people as we had these conversations,” Froh told the law school audience that came to hear about the struggles of the Métis through history, their recent legal victories, and what the future holds.

That history includes being burned out of their homes, chased from their land and denied a place at the table during treaty negotiations with other Indigenous groups, as the provinces and federal government waffled over who had jurisdiction for the Métis.

Sitting beneath a picture of the Fathers of Confederation, Métis leaders reminded the cabinet members that Jan. 30 was also the anniversary of the day in 1981 that Métis were included in the draft of what was to become Section 35 of the new Constitution.

Section 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982 recognizes and affirms the rights of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. But it wasn’t until April 2016 that the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Métis and non-status Indians are "Indians" under the definition of the Constitution, and fall under federal jurisdiction.

“We were able to discuss with cabinet what we have been through as Métis, and the relationship we want to have moving forward,” Froh said about the meeting in Ottawa.

Following his meetings with Indigenous leaders last December, Trudeau said Ottawa wanted to establish government–to-government relationships with First Nations, Inuit and Métis.

Educating the country about who the Métis are—and dispelling the myths surrounding them—is one of the biggest challenges, said Froh, who bristled at the misconception Métis are simply mixed race descendants of Europeans and First Nations peoples.

“There are some people who will tell you that nine months after the first European arrived on the shores of Canada, the first Métis came to be,” Froh said. “That notion is false, and it’s really quite insulting.”

The Métis actually emerged through a process of “ethno-genesis” that lasted several generations as people with First Nations and European ancestry came together to form their own distinct identity and communities.

They created their own communities from Ontario westward to the Prairies and beyond, settling along waterways and near the growing population centres that were the hub of trading activity in the years before Confederation.

“When you think about where our major centres in Canada are located, it is where waterways merged, commerce was conducted and relationships developed, and not surprisingly, it’s where the Métis had a vital role as traders.”

The Métis developed a distinct language called “Michif” with many local dialects, but largely a mix of French, Cree and Ojibwa.

Froh distributed lapel pins to the audience bearing the Métis flag—the oldest in Canada—which was first flown 200 years ago at the Battle of Seven Oaks of 1816, during a “war” between the rivals Hudson’s Bay and North West fur trading companies.

Their history is why the Métis were recognized under Section 35 as a distinct nation “who were practising our culture, language and traditions, and in possession of our territories, either solely or in partnership with First Nations, prior to the creation of Canada.”

Today’s Métis nation consists of people who are descendants of those historic communities. In fact, to be recognized as Métis, a person has to show their links to one of those communities, said Froh.

In 2003, an Ontario family called Powley were the subject of the first major SCC test case involving Aboriginal rights for Métis. The Powley decision laid out a set of criteria defining Métis rights and who was entitled to them.

“That case literally changed the world for Métis in Canada.”

The MNO has also emerged as a force in the fight for Métis rights. Formed in 1993, the MNO now includes six regional rights-bearing communities around the province and 29 chartered community councils. The Métis public service in Ontario has grown to over 200 employees, and 19,000 adults are in the MNO citizenship registry.

In recent years, government legislative initiatives such as the MNO Secretariat Act have also created more room for Métis governance now and in the future, said Froh.

Responding to a question from Chandra Murdoch, a U of T PhD history student, Froh said “everything is going to be on the table” as the MNO negotiates full self-government.

The traditional territory of the Métis in Ontario covers “the vast swaths of the province,” from communities along the Great Lakes to the northwestern regions and up towards James Bay.

“I think having a land base is incredibly important, because like the First Nations, our connection to the land really lies at the heart of who we are,” said Froh.

As the impact of the recent court decisions and government recognition begins to take hold, the Métis are finally reaching a point where there is greater awareness of who they are and how they came to be.

“Our history as Métis people is a history of exclusion, a history of being made invisible,” said Froh.

“But I believe we are at a time in our history as Métis people where finally the clouds are parting and the sun is shining down on us. It’s a beautiful time to be Métis.”