LAC LA BICHE - In honour of Métis Week, hundreds of people gathered at Portage College in Lac La Biche for a series of teaching opportunities, entertainment and hands-on activities.
The event ran from Nov. 13-19 and was hosted by the Métis Nation of Alberta (MNA) Region 1 and Portage College. The event was an opportunity to not only recognize the distinct community but to commemorate Louis Riel, a political leader who continues to inspire Métis people 137 years after his death.
“We're here to celebrate our people and to always remember what our leader Louis Riel fought for,” said James Cardinal, MNA Region 1 President during an event at the college on Nov. 17.
At the centre of the week's celebrations was an important ratification vote for the estimated 56,000 eligible Métis voters that is wrapping up this month.
The Otipemisiwak Métis Government Constitution is a piece of legislation the provincial MNA leadership is aiming to pass to seek complete self-governance rights. Many of the founding Constitution’s contributors advocated for the piece of legislation in Lac La Biche on Nov. 17.
The Constitution draft, which was put forward this summer, is an opportunity to give social, healthcare, governing, cultural preservation and land rights laws to the Métis Albertans.
On Nov. 17, MNA President Audrey Poitras and a handful of panellists spoke to a room full of eligible voters at Portage College’s Indigenous cultural centre, the Wanîskah room. She told the group that if the ratification vote passes the 50-plus-one threshold, it will replace the group's membership in the Alberta Societies Act, a provincial arm that allows the group to have distinct rights, but includes government approval and limitations.
“For many, many years, our citizens have passed resolutions, have given us direction so many times [to] get out of the Societies Act and create that Constitution,” Poitras told Lakeland Today.
“We will no longer be having to deal with exactly as the Alberta government wants us to... We will lead the structure, the needs and the wants of our people in the way that they see it, not in the way that we have to fit into some other government's model. So, I think that's really the biggest thing.”
Voters weigh in on Métis Settlements
But for some Métis people in the Lac La Biche region, the contents of the 24-page draft Constitution aren't so straight-forward.
Joe Blyan from Buffalo Lake Métis Settlement has noted some concerns from residents in Alberta’s eight Métis settlements. He said many settlement members may not recognize the Constitution if the vote is ratified.
“Many of us settlement members are questioning how do we fit into this once the Constitution has been agreed to? Our leadership doesn’t seem to want to participate with the Métis Nation,” he said, which is concerning during a time when all Métis people are looking to gain independence.
“I am a settlement member, and I am a card-carrying member of the Métis Nation of Alberta. I always have been. I was a member of the Métis Nation before I became a member of the settlement,” he said, advocating for a partnership between the two groups.
Throughout last week’s two-hour long question and answer session, Poitras confirmed that steps are being taken to communicate with the Métis Settlements, especially since many of the thousands of MNA members across the province are from the settlements.
“We have no intention of leaving anyone out. Everyone has a right to make a choice where you live and to be part of the Métis Nation,” she said, referring to registered members. “Our citizens live on those lands, and they still have a right to be a part of our Constitution,” she said.
Many Métis people and leaders who have opposed the constitution have been actively concerned about the authority a governing MNA body could create. In turn, many communities, including Buffalo Lake and Kikino Métis Settlements, have reached out to the federal government to share their concerns.
Dorothy Desjarlais was also at the discussion session. The local Métis woman is concerned about how social and support benefits provided to Métis people will change with the new Constitution. She said many members, especially seniors, are unaware of how their well-being will be impacted.
Poitras assured that the inherent rights and benefits the Métis people already receive will improve. She cited the 2019 signing of an agreement between the MNA and the federal government recognizing their right to govern.
“The government of Canada has recognized the Métis Nation as the government of the Métis people in Alberta. So that’s already been approved by the signing of our self-government agreement… we recognize that,” Poitras said, drawing some cheers from the audience, before adding that negotiations with the provincial government are continuing.
“That’s not to say we don’t have things we need to do with the provincial government, but the fiduciary responsibility is with the federal government, and that’s recognized.”
Across the country, several Métis bodies have their own governing laws, but the Constitution put forward by the MNA is historic, according to Garrett Tomlinson, the MNA’s senior director of self-government implementation.
“The Métis Nation of Ontario and the Metis Nation of Saskatchewan, they’re in a genuine process with Canada right now, albeit at a few steps back,” he says, and the work being done by the MNA is encouraging them to push forward.
The MNA is “paving the way for them to essentially just fall in and then start walking that path themselves. So, you'll see the Métis Nation of Ontario and the Métis Nation of Saskatchewan likely coming along right behind, and it's because of the hard work that the MNA has done.”
Considering the constitution will allow members to get involved, share their stories and have their concerns heard according to the draft, Tomlinson says that value is central to how MNA people and leadership want to govern.
“When we look at the way the Métis have communicated their laws historically, coding them and codifying them in writing, has been part of it. But the stories we heard from the elders today and all afternoon, that's how our laws were embodied and transmitted. It's in those stories,” he told Lakeland Today following the panel and celebratory events on Nov. 17.
“Now it's up to our citizens to keep telling stories and the constitution will empower them to live out those rights and live out those laws.”
Regardless of the ratification vote and inherent rights the group is aiming to achieve, the governing MNA body is still invested in the Canadian community, said Poitras.
“We're very proud Métis, but we're also Albertans and we're also Canadians… we have the best of both worlds. We certainly take from our First Nation side, but we also take from our European side,” Poitras said.
Voting on the MNA Constitution is open until Nov. 30.