By a 6-2 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that the federal government has not lived up to its obligations to the Métis under the terms of the Manitoba Act of 1870. Specifically, the court said Ottawa failed to fulfill its commitment under Section 31 of the act to award 1.4 million acres (566,000 hectares) of land to 7,000 Métis children.
“Although the honour of the Crown obliged the government to act with diligence to fulfill Section 31, it acted with persistent inattention and failed to act diligently to achieve the purposes of the Section 31 grant,” the court ruled. “This was not a matter of occasional negligence, but of repeated mistakes and inaction that persisted for more than a decade, substantially defeating the purpose of Section 31.”
The Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF) first brought the case to the attention of the courts in 1981 and has spent roughly $5 million over the years to bring their claim to a successful conclusion.
The question of land ceded to the Métis is embroiled in their long history in Manitoba and the battle for power that arose just prior to and after the creation of the new province. The most decisive role in ensuring inclusion of Métis land claims in the Manitoba Act belongs to Riel. But the actual awarding of land is steeped in the murky behind-the-scenes dealings, a changing local demographic caused by an influx of settlers from Ontario, outright bigotry, the Métis’ desire to be free from the constraints of a sedentary lifestyle, and the lust for land by an emerging business elite.
The Manitoba Act was passed in the House of Commons, given Royal Assent on May 12, 1870 and took effect on June 15. Opposition soon arose as to how the details of the grant would be worked out. The Anglican Bishop of Rupert’s Land, Robert Machray, worried about setting aside so much land for “a special class of people and religion.” He echoed the common complaint among the Ontarians that once the land was granted, it would not be “improved and occupied.”
The bishop wrote to Canada’s Governor-General John Young, Lord Lisgar, on July 16, 1870, that such “an arrangement will not in the end be suffered to stand and it will create endless agitation and annoyance.”
The Ontarians favoured a policy of first-come, first-served — and they would always be first.
What hindered the entire process was the fact that the details of how the transfer of land claims were to occur hadn’t been worked out prior to the passage of the Manitoba Act. The result was confusion and bitterness about what the government was later prepared to cede.
Adams Archibald, the Manitoba lieutenant-governor began the process of awarding land to the Métis and paving the way for other settlers by negotiating Treaty 1, which was signed on August 3, 1871, and extinguished aboriginal land claims in the province. In anticipation of the successful signing, he issued a proclamation for Métis residents to select townships for individual allotments. The Métis were then to claim strips of land along the rivers, amounting to about one-sixth of the province’s area. The minister in charge of the Dominion Lands Branch denounced Archibald for “giving countenance for the wholesale appropriation of large tracts of land for half-breeds.” The lieutenant-governor was then advised by the minister to “leave the Land Department and the Dominion Government to carry out their policy without volunteering any interference.”
The land agency representing Ottawa in Manitoba recommended in January 1872 that the 1.4-million acres be taken from 68 townships drawn at random from open prairie in Manitoba’s 408 townships, with redeemable scrip being issued to the individual children of Métis families.
By the end of 1872, The Manitoban was reporting that speculators had commenced to buy up the rights to scrip. It was reputed that one individual already held scrip to 40,000 acres in Winnipeg. To prevent speculation in scrip, the Manitoba government was prepared to pass a bill preventing heads of families from selling their children’s allotments.
When the province was told that such legislation was unconstitutional, Ottawa stepped in with an order-in-council taking away the right of heads of families to become involved in the allotment of 240-acres for each child. Heads of families, who could prove residency on land before the creation of the province, were given scrip valued at $160 or 160 acres of land. It was ruled that scrip could be sold and transferred because to allow otherwise was deemed to be unconstitutional.
The first issue of the Manitoba Free Press on November 30, 1872 told of “half-breeds” in 1871 being asked by government officials to select unoccupied land between the Assiniboine River and Lake Manitoba as part of their land grant, and “make improvement on it, go to the office to have it recorded.” The Free Press said immigrants had also been asked to select land in the same area, so that when the Métis went to have their claims registered, they were told “it was bought and paid for by men in Ontario.”
The “best of the land is being sold to Ontario capitalists, who will let it lie unimproved for years, till it rises in price, thereby hindering the progress of settlement.”
The Manitoban published accusations of Métis being coerced into selling their scrip which was snapped up by speculators at fire-sale prices. By 1876, so much scrip had reached the speculative market that what had been previously valued at $160 for 160 acres was reduced to a mere $50 cash.
Meanwhile, legislation was being passed and order-in-councils were being issued to define who was actually eligible to receive scrip redeemable in land and patents for land. An order-in-council pegged the deadline for late applicants of scrip to May 1, 1886. But, some land was awarded later when allotments were cancelled after recipients were found to be ineligible.
An interesting footnote to the awarding of land occurred in 1898, when a more sympathetic Liberal government headed by Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier issued an order-in-council approving a claim made on behalf of Louis Riel’s son and heir, Jean.
“Our people should be proud that, no matter what we went through, we’ve never forgotten who we are,” said MMF head David Chartrand. “We’ve never let Canada walk away and forget what they owe us. So, it’s a great day, not only for Métis, it’s a great day for Manitoba and I think it’s a great day for all of Canada.”
But Winnipeggers and other Manitobans need not fear that they will be evicted from their homes as a result of the Supreme Court decision. Instead, the federal government has an obligation to enter into negotiations with the province’s Métis to determine some monetary compensation or the awarding of existing Crown land to them.