The Metis Settlements General Council in Alberta wants self-government, but not in the way the provincial government or the coronavirus pandemic is dictating.
General Council President Herb Lehr says the province is dictating how the Metis Settlements Act, a 30-year-old piece of legislation that governs Métis settlements, must be amended.
“They’re saying they’re going to implement all these changes to the Metis Settlements Act and I, for one, am not supportive of any of those changes until our people have been consulted,” said Lehr in a year-end video address posted to the council’s Twitter feed Dec. 17.
“The power in the act is held by the province. It’s not self-government for us,” he added.
This summer, Indigenous Relations Minister Rick Wilson started talking to the Metis Settlements General Council about changes he wants to make to the Settlements Act.
It’s an overdue discussion, Wilson said, pointing to the end of a 10-year provincial funding agreement, which is set to expire in 2023.
“Alberta’s in a tough fiscal situation right now and we have to look at being a little more creative. I think the Metis settlements, if we can get them set up into operating a little more efficient, they’ve got some great ability to succeed,” Wilson told Windspeaker.com Dec. 21.
Alberta is the only province with a land-based Metis population. The eight settlements with varying populations are spread out over the northern part of the province and are governed by the 40-member General Council.
In 1989/90, under the Alberta-Metis Settlements Accord, the eight Metis settlements received a $310-million, 17-year financial agreement with the province. At that time, ownership of the land was transferred from the province to the settlements. While the province paid that money in installments each year over the 17-year agreement, Lehr has explained, and ear-marked how that money was to be spent, the Metis Settlements General Council managed to save some of that money—$130 million—in a Future Fund.
In 2007, the General Council received no funding transfer from the province, so started to use the dollars from the Future Fund.
They went back to court in 2010, which resulted in a further 10-year, $85 million funding agreement in 2013.
Wilson says there will not be another long-term funding agreement struck in 2023.
“There’s other ways we can work together,” he said.
Wilson points to the Future Fund as a financial source for the General Council to use, although Lehr says that fund has been depleted to $27 million.
“They want to be more in control of their finances, so I said, ‘Okay, I’ll take myself out of there and you can be in charge of your …Future Fund,” said the minister. “That had built up over the years to a fairly large substantial amount of money, but it’s been drawn down for covering governance costs and it really wasn’t set aside for doing that type of thing….
“Let them be in charge of it with the money that’s left in there and, ‘If you want to let it build back up again and use it for the future or spend it, don’t make me the meat in the sandwich. Make your own decisions on it.’ So that’s why we want to give them the opportunity to do that,” said Wilson.
Removing the minister from making the financial decisions on the Future Fund is one of the larger amendments Wilson is proposing to the Settlements Act. The other two major changes will be to give the Metis local councils the ability to charge levies for services, such as water and sewer, and to be able to penalize those who don’t pay; and to allow the General Council to operate with a council of less than five representatives from each of the eight settlements.
Wilson says his goal is to “set (the Metis settlements) up so that they can be successful and be competitive out there with everybody else. So that's why we looked at making some amendments.”
Wilson would also like to see the Metis settlements get involved in the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation. The AIOC provides $1 billion in loan guarantees backstopped by the province with the purpose of reducing the cost of capital for Indigenous groups pursuing commercially viable projects in energy, mining or forestry. Projects are to be funded for no less than $20 million.
The minister points to the 1.25 million acres of land the settlements have in total and the forestry and oil and gas developments that can happen there. Wilson says there is also the ability to tax for linear assessments, taxes municipal governments collect on industrial property like oil and gas wells, pipelines and electrical power lines.
Another revenue source for the settlements is the Aboriginal Business Investment Fund which gives grants of up to $500,000 to cover capital costs for Indigenous community-owned economic development projects, Wilson says.
“That’s what I want to get them to do, is to be more financially independent, basically rather than just having to rely on coming to the government and asking for money… Be in charge of their own destiny, basically,” he said.
Lehr says the “substantive changes” to governance that are being proposed by Wilson need to occur through a referendum and a referendum cannot be held without fulsome consultation with Metis settlements.
“In June (Wilson) asked us to go consult with our members and be prepared to have him something for the end of November to take forward for legislative changes,” Lehr told Windspeaker.com.
“Now, you tell me how a province under COVID lockdown can have general meetings in communities where you need to go in-depth in an Act and very aggressive changes to that when … Alberta Health (Services) has said no meetings?” said Lehr.
Wilson says Skype and other virtual meetings, like what has become the norm this past year, could take place.
For legislative changes to the Metis Settlements Act to be considered in fall 2021, Wilson says he has to have the legislation ready for the spring.
Lehr is not opposed to repealing parts of the Act, especially since he believes it could open doors for federal government support and could lead to the replenishment of the Future Fund, but he is opposed to membership not having their say.
“I’m worried for our communities that if we don’t proceed federally that we could feel insolvency in two years,” he said in the video address. With no provincial dollars, the Future Fund would be whittled down.
“I know it’s scary with the province, with the premier saying there’s no money, but we do have the federal government. The Supreme Court of Canada said they actually are the ones who have a responsibility toward (the Metis),” said Lehr.
The Supreme Court of Canada 2016 decision in the Daniels case ruled Metis were the fiduciary responsibility of Canada.
In 2018, the Metis Settlements General Council signed a framework agreement with Carolyn Bennett, minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, in which Canada committed to working on a government-to-government basis with the Metis settlements.
“We’ve been very successful with the federal government up to this point,” said Lehr.
The General Council is advocating for $50 million annually for three years from the federal government to be included in the spring 2021 budget. The funding would serve as a stop-gap measure until a long-term plan can be established.
However, as far as Wilson is concerned, chances are slim to see that kind of commitment from the federal government.
“I know the settlements are looking to try to get some assistance through the federal government. We’ve written a letter, and I’ve talked to the federal Crown minister about this. I know they’re reviewing it, but at this point everybody is tight on money so it’s going to probably be difficult,” said Wilson.
By Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Windspeaker.com, Windspeaker.com