The recent victory of a Metis hunter in Ontario, establishing the Supreme Court’s opinion that the Metis have the full rights of Aboriginal people in Canada takes me back more than 30 years to my first contacts with Metis leaders in Albert and the West.
For many generations, isolated Metis leaders had been struggling to defend the legacy of Gabriel Dumont and Louis Riel against the entrenched indifference of most Canadian authorities. In 1970, as a touring reporter with The Montreal Star, I met the leaders of the Metis in Alberta, who were trying to establish a strong province-wide association to defend their rights. Provincial leader was the incomparable Stan Daniels, a middle-aged former construction worker; his sidekick was the younger and better-educated Tony Belcourt, who is still active in Ontario, and was seen on TV this week rejoicing over the most recent victory.
I took an immediate liking to Stan Daniels, who had fallen into politics when he had been confronted with trying to find a defence for a member of his family who was charged with a serious crime. When he saw how the system operated for Metis people, he figured he should do something about it. Later, Stan gained national attention when he walked from Alberta to Ottawa with a sausage to dramatize the extraordinary food prices being charged to northern people.
Twenty years later, when on another safari through Aboriginal communities across Canada, I visited the small community of Kelly Lake, near the Alberta-B.C. border. There I met 70-year-old Francis Belcourt, worn out after a lifetime as a trapper, whose family had moved from Red River following the Riel Rebellion, to Lac Ste-Anne in Alberta, to Grande Prairie, and to Kelly lake in 1915. Somehow they never quite managed to keep ahead of the incoming white settlers. Kelly Lake was full of people bearing traditional Metis names – Calliou, Gladu, L’Hirondelle, Letendre. “We trapped wolves, coyotes, foxes, lynx, marten, fisher, wolverine, squirrels, weasels, otter, beaver, muskrat,” Francis told me, his eyes gleaming with pleasure at the memories. In those days, with plenty of furbearing animals, the trappers could make twice the average Depression-era wage of $150 a month.
But from the 1970s, with new gas, oil and coal fields moving in all around them, the new service town of Tumbler Ridge being build nearby, and the new service roads opening up Kelly Lake to the outside world, the animals had been frightened away and trapping had now almost been wiped out. Twenty years before, Kelly Lake had 350 people; but by 1990 it was down to 150. Young people had to leave if they wanted to work. Only one of the Belcourts’ 11 children was still living at home, the others living in small towns, doing all sorts of ordinary Canadian jobs. “They know they are part-lndian,” said Francis, of his children, “but that’s about it.”
The victory won in court this week follows many in which Metis hunters and trappers have been charged for offences under white Canadian laws that it is now established should never have applied to them. In my book People of Terra Nullius, I talk about George Belmore, a member of the Saugeen band of Ojibway in northern Ontario, was nevertheless not a status Indian under the Indian Act. He spoke Ojibway, understood little English, was literate only in Oji-Cree syllabics, and when taken to court had to speak through an interpreter. He took his 12-year-old grandson out in a canoe to teach him about the traditions of his people by hunting for ducks that were to be used for ceremonial purposes. Their settlement, Allanwater Bridge, had previously been placed under surveillance by officials of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, who arrested Belmore and later two of his adult sons for “unlawfully hunting birds in contravention of the Migratory Birds Convention Act.”
Belmore told the court that if the feast for which the birds had been hunted were not held, “the result would be the decline of game in the territory.” This feast is one of the means by which Ojibway people manage the stock of wildlife resources on which they have depended for generations. Belmore’s lawyer, Andrew Chapeskie, of Kenora, in presenting this case to an international conference, said he had been forced to the conclusion that there was so little understanding in the Euro-legal system of Aboriginal methods of wildlife management that it was hardly worth taking such cases to court.
This recent case seems to suggest that the legal system is at last awakening to more sensitive evaluation of Aboriginal methods and needs.
note: Boyce article was edited for space. Full text can be seen at Boyce Richardson’s website: www.magma.ca/~brich/index.html