Métis membership likely to rise after federal ruling grants rights

So far this young year, aboriginal issues have dominated the news cycle.

We have watched as the once-small Idle No More movement grows in scope and influence. We have seen a band chief challenge the prime minister and demand fairer treatment from the Crown.

We have watched as a financial audit put the funding and responsibility of First Nations communities on the front page.

'Indian' court ruling brings hope: ChiefA federal court has ruled that Metis and non-status Indians qualify as "Indians" under federal jurisdiction. Chief Betty Ann Lavallee says the decision ends the denial of aboriginal birthrights.

Now, Canada’s Federal Court has expanded the definition of who is considered to be “Indian” under the Constitution Act. It could mean a change in rights and benefits for as many as 600,000 Métis and non-status aboriginals.

[ Related: Could Metis membership applications spike after federal court ruling? ]

The Canadian Press reports that Tuesday’s court decision could lead to a spike in Métis membership applications, as those who think they have some claim to the classification come out of the woodwork.

Randy Ranville, a Winnipeg Métis genealogist, told the newsgroup that he expects "to be swamped" by those looking for proof that they are legally classified as Métis — those with mixed First Nations and European heritage.

The Métis Culture and Heritage Resource Centre in Winnipeg helps applicants search through government records, Hudson's Bay Company employee files and the 1901 census for proof that ancestors were classified as Métis.

Still, it will be years before the matter is settled, with legal challenges and political debates certain as the new definition is put into practice.

And it is still unclear what benefits will be afforded to the Métis people by the government, although they could include health and education assistance already provided on-reserve First Nation members, as well as hunting rights and a say in treaty negotiations with the federal government.

[ Related: Northern Métis applaud landmark status ruling ]

The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson says the ruling is a “Pandora’s box,” likely to cause as much or more confusion as it sought to clarify.

He writes:

However well-reasoned Judge [Michael] Phelan’s ruling may be in law, in practice it could turn out to be an unholy mess. Another constitutionally-validated voice would be at the table, pounding that table and demanding redress.

First nations on reserve would fear having their funding slashed to accommodate off-reserve programs and services. Provinces could come to that table, demanding more federal funding to look after off-reserve aboriginal Canadians who are now, constitutionally, Ottawa’s problem.

In the end, there could be less of everything for everyone, except lawyers.

In fairness, courts don’t set out to make things easy. They set out to make things right. Now that it has been settled, it is up to the rest of us to put it into action.