Standing in front of Centre Block on Parliament Hill on Wednesday, John Turner pointed to an old black-and-white picture of his ancestors featured in a 2019 edition of the Métis Voyageur newsletter.
The family, said Turner, were members of the Teme-Augama Anishnabai (Temagami First Nation) in northern Ontario — and not Métis, as their presence in the Métis Nation of Ontario (MNO) publication might suggest.
"When you talk about identity theft, this is such a clear-cut case," said Turner, who is second chief of the Teme-Augama Anishnabai council, in an interview.
"On one hand, it's disturbing. On the other hand, if they have tens of thousands of members, surely to God they can find pictures of their own ancestors. No descendants of these people are Métis."
Turner was one man in a crowd of about 200 that bused into Ottawa to protest against proposed federal legislation that would confirm the MNO's internal Indigenous self-government rights.
In choosing to recognize the MNO, the First Nations leaders say Canada failed to consult them and failed to properly verify the MNO's citizens are truly Métis.
The Chiefs of Ontario is leading a campaign against federal legislation that would ratify a self-government agreement with the Métis Nation of Ontario. (Brett Forester/CBC)
The Métis Nation emerged as distinct people of mixed First Nations and European origins in the Prairies in the late 18th century. But the roots of today's battle are in the Ontario's government's 2017 decision to recognize six new historic Métis communities in the province.
The decision stretched the Métis homeland as far east as the Ottawa river on the Quebec border — an area where First Nations maintain their elders never spoke of a Métis presence.
"This is a pure fabrication of the federal government and the provincial government," said Nipissing First Nation Chief Scott McLeod, a spokesman for the Chiefs of Ontario umbrella group on the issue.
The Canadian government signed an updated self-government agreement with the MNO earlier this year, promising to ratify it through legislation. The First Nations want that legislation — Bill C-53 — cancelled.
The Assembly of First Nations, representing more than 600 First Nations countrywide, backed the cause on Wednesday.
"Bill C-53 was advanced without proper consultation with First Nations," said interim National Chief Joanna Bernard.
In prepared remarks to the crowd, Bernard said she had written to the prime minister urging the bill be halted until that consultation happens, while several other First Nations groups issued statements supporting the Ontario chiefs.
MNO celebrates Powley decision
The MNO, however, accuses First Nations of denialism and disingenuousness.
MNO President Margaret Froh points to the Supreme Court of Canada's landmark Powley decision, which affirmed the existence of a historic Métis community in and around Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
Tuesday was the 20th anniversary of the ruling, which laid out the 10-part Powley test for affirming Métis rights. The MNO marked the occasion by releasing a documentary, The Hunt for Justice: The Powley Story.
Froh said she is "concerned, again, on the 20th anniversary, after finally achieving that recognition, that there are others that are trying to take us back to the time Métis were not recognized."
Metis Nation of Ontario President Margaret Froh takes part in a news conference following a Metis National Council meeting in Ottawa in June. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Froh said she hopes the film educates people about how hard the Métis have fought for their rights and recognition. She said she sees respectful dialogue as the solution, but she also won't back down on Bill C-53.
"After 200 years of fighting for recognition, the time has come," she said.
Gull Bay First Nation Chief Wilfred King argued Powley has been "misconstrued and misapplied." In his view, Powley only established harvesting rights in Sault Ste. Marie and didn't concern land title or potential rights anywhere else.
"Yes, we recognize that there are certain Métis rights, but very limited rights," he told CBC News at Wednesday's rally.
The Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF) broke from the Métis National Council over the issue of the new Métis communities in Ontario in 2021, and voiced support for the rally Wednesday by condemning the "unfounded and illegitimate" communities.
In a statement, MMF President David Chartrand accused the MNO of using Red River Métis symbols and culture to "camouflage" baseless claims and identity theft.
"They are not us — they are not our kin and we do not know them," said Chartand.
Objections 'ironic,' says MNO councillor
According to Mitch Case, regional councillor for the MNO community that includes Sault Ste. Marie, there is irony in this position.
The new Powley film shows a younger Chartrand hailing the ruling at the time, saying it "clearly sets the tone for the future for our people."
"Quite frankly, some of the people who are now objecting to us were some of the strongest voices celebrating us 20 years ago," said Case.
"So that's an interesting, ironic twist of history."
Likewise, Case said he still has the old AFN news release congratulating the Métis on the Powley win. He called it incredibly unfortunate to see the AFN now protesting Bill C-53. What concerns him most, he added, is the politically heated rhetoric's impact on MNO youth.
He told an anecdote about a new mother who brought her week-old daughter to celebrate her first Powley day. He too touted discussion with First Nations as the solution but said discussion must begin with acceptance that Métis exist in Ontario.
"Telling my community we don't exist, telling that little girl that she doesn't have a culture or a story, that's a non-starter for me," he said.
Ontario Regional Chief Glen Hare speaks at a news conference in Ottawa on Wednesday, flanked by First Nations leadership from Ontario and Manitoba. (Brett Forester/CBC)
At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, the First Nations said it's the MNO being disingenuous, making 11th-hour calls for dialogue while being aggressive in political back rooms.
The bill was fast-tracked to the committee stage in the House of Commons before the summer break, and the federal government has given no indication it intends to withdraw it.
If that's the case, said the AFN's Ontario regional chief, the fight will continue.
"My chiefs are already putting up their flags," Glen Hare told reporters.