BONNYVILLE – In Bonnyville, a large gathering was held to celebrate Métis Week on Nov. 14, at the Bonnyville and District Centennial Centre (C2). The community event was hosted by the Métis Nation of Alberta’s (MNA) Region II.
Celebrations and gatherings took place across the province last week to highlight the heritage, history and the contributions of Métis people from Nov. 13-19.
The event marked community pride and political action. It included dinner, keynote speaker Audrey Poitras, the president of the MNA, as well as performances by the Métis Jiggers and local Métis entertainers Don L’Hirondelle and Kyle Desjarlais from Cold Lake.
Nearly 200 people attended, many of whom took part in the ratification vote on the Otipemisiwak Métis Government Constitution proposed by the MNA.
“I wasn't really expecting the turnout to be that much. But it just shows that people are interested in what's happening in the Nation,” MNA Region II President Duane Zaraska told Lakeland This Week.
“They are excited about all that we have going on and more and more people are getting involved, which was good to see. People are more proud of their cultural history now... It's all a part of moving forward and reconciliation.”
The gathering also overlapped polling station hours for the MNA’s ratification vote on the draft constitution at the C2.
Zaraska said the MNA constitution vote, which started Nov. 1 and runs until Nov. 30, is another large step for the citizens of the Métis Nation of Alberta.
Speaking to the crowd during the gathering, Poitras said, “Throughout this month, citizens of the Métis Nation of Alberta are taking the next critical step on our journey to reconciliation and self-government by voting on the Otipemisiwak Métis Government Constitution.”
Poitras described casting a ballot as “taking part in a truly historic moment.”
“Our ancestors were determined that we would secure the inherent right to govern ourselves, to continue expressing ourselves as Otipemisiwak – which means ‘the people that own themselves’ – and to protect our traditions, values, and truth for generations to come.”
She continued, “Today, we are not a small group of Albertans. We now represent over 56,000 registered citizens, with thousands more being registered each year.”
Those eligible to take part in the constitution vote must be a registered citizen with the MNA and a minimum of 16 years old.
Zaraska explains that getting youth involved is a fundamental part of the Nation and the reason for the voting age limit.
"We really want to get our youth involved. That's important with any organization, with every government, getting them started early, getting them interested. They are our future leaders."
All MNA citizens are encouraged by the Nation to vote online, by mail or at one of several voting stations set up around the province at varying times.
The ballot asks voters to answer a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question: “Are you in favour of ratifying the Otipemisiwak Métis Government Constitution?”
The constitution being voted on was developed by the MNA Constitution Commission to be approved by the Nation’s citizens.
“It was put forward to the citizens to see what they thought about it,” explained Zaraska. “Now with the ratification, what that means is, once the citizens vote and say, ‘yes’ to this constitution, then we move forward, and we present that at the federal level.”
Once the Otipemisiwak Métis Government Constitution is brought to the federal government, it must also pass through the House of Commons, he noted.
It is a long process says the Region II president, but it is worth the effort just as it was in 1928.
The Métis Nation of Alberta started in 1928 by a group known as the “Big 5,” which included Felix Calliou, Joseph Dion, Jim Brady, Malcolm Norris, and Peter Tomkins.
The Big 5 pushed the provincial government to recognize Métis rights, and to provide the only land settlements that exist for Métis people in Canada today.
“I'm just glad we are in history where we are. We have been fighting for this for a long time,” said Zaraska, reflecting on the contributions of Louis Riel, a prominent Métis revolutionary.
The MNA tells voters that ratifying the constitution will advance conversations with both Canadian and Albertan governments.
According to the Nation, the constitution will create “a new fiscal relationship with Canada to finally provide Métis-designed supports to our citizens in health, housing, language, education, training, economic development, and justice."
The proposed constitution also mentions Métis land claims and repatriation of lands, which Zaraskas acknowledges is a contentious topic for some.
“But it's just fair compensation for basically the lands that were lost,” he said, adding that it is to correct wrongs done by the Canadian government through the scrip system.
“[It] was a horrific black mark in Canadian history, where the Métis people were taken off their land and give a worthless piece of paper. So, there are land claim issues and then of course, there are our inherent rights to be self-governed.”
Voting continues for Region II throughout the Lakeland at varying times and locations until Nov. 30. Polling stations are open in Bonnyville, Cold Lake, Lloydminster, St. Paul and Vegreville.