Why the Isaac report on Métis goes in the wrong direction

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Appeared in the Globe and Mail, August 8, 2016

Le mot français est dérivé du participle latin, Mixtus, qui signifie Mêlé….”  Louis Riel

The federal government has restricted First Nations’ freedom of movement, sent their children to residential schools, listed their members’ names on a racially defined Registry, trapped them on reserves with tax exemptions and “free” but substandard housing and other social services, curtailed their property rights, and through the Indian Act made it difficult for them to develop their remaining land and natural resources. That story should stand as a warning for all time about the dangers of defining groups of people in racial terms and putting them under the paternalistic control of the state. You might think so … but, no, here we go again.

Thomas Isaac, a prominent specialist in aboriginal law, was appointed by the Conservative government to write a report on the Métis. That report has now been delivered and accepted by Liberal Minister of Indigenous Affairs Carolyn Bennett as a basis for future negotiations, a “roadmap to reconciliation.”  It is roadmap all right, pointing toward economic stagnation and privileged status for organizational insiders, not genuine progress for people.

Here are some highlights. The Métis should be treated, like the First Nations, as a “rights-bearing” people under Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. The Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs should provide permanent and greatly enlarged funding to a kaleidoscope of Métis organizations, many of which now style themselves “governments.” These organizations will deliver social services to their own clientele, even though Métis people are scattered all over Canada. Ottawa, which is already trying to deal with over 600 First Nations on a “nation-to-nation” basis, should deal with these Métis organizations on a “government-to-government” basis. And Métis governments must have the same right to be consulted on economic development projects as the First Nations do, even though there are no legally defined Métis traditional territories. Cue the demands for impact-and-benefit agreements, and ultimately for a share of natural resource revenues (of whatever is still being generated after all the consultations are finished).

Most problematic, in my view, is the demand that Ottawa guarantee enhanced, long-term financial support for construction of a Métis Registry, based on genealogical research as a first step in determining who is eligible for future benefits. Once proper ancestry is established, Métis governments will decide who has enough community acceptance to get listed in the Registry. This might be acceptable for a purely private ethnic association but has scary overtones coming from soi-disant governments.

The rationale behind all these proposals is that the Métis have missed out on the benefits that the First Nations receive as aboriginal peoples. Ironically, however, the Métis are better off than First Nations precisely because they have always been independent and self-supporting, “the free people,” as they have often called themselves. It is no accident that Métis do better than First Nations on every indicator that Statistics Canada measures, including employment, income, housing, and education.

Of course, Mr. Isaac didn’t invent all these demands; he heard them from the leaders of Métis organizations. These leaders will do well for themselves if, as seems likely, Ottawa’s roadmap to reconciliation includes more funding for Métis organizations and more government-to-government negotiations. But what about ordinary people of mixed race?

Individual prosperity comes from developing human capital and participating in the economy, not from building government-funded organizations that tend to separate people from other citizens. Ethnic groups such as the Jews, Chinese, and Japanese have achieved wonderful prosperity in Canada in spite of enduring episodes of discrimination. Would they have done better, or even as well, if their efforts had been devoted to getting their names on a registry, in order to receive compensation for wrongs done to their ancestors?

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