Court decision significant for Métis in Sask., says lawyer for men charged with illegal hunting, fishing

·4 min read
A file photo shows a hunter with a rifle. Two Métis men in Saskatchewan are applauding a recent Court of Appeal decision that new trials should be ordered on their convictions for illegal hunting and fishing nearly a decade ago. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)
A file photo shows a hunter with a rifle. Two Métis men in Saskatchewan are applauding a recent Court of Appeal decision that new trials should be ordered on their convictions for illegal hunting and fishing nearly a decade ago. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)

A recent decision from Saskatchewan's Court of Appeal is being touted as a significant victory for Métis harvesting rights in Saskatchewan.

On Tuesday, a panel of three judges ruled that new trials should be ordered for Warren Boyer and Oliver Poitras, two Métis men charged with illegal hunting and fishing in northwestern Saskatchewan in cases that date back as far as a decade.

Boyer and Poitras argued that they had an Indigenous right, protected by the Constitution Act, to hunt and fish for food.

"Paragraph 1 of the decision says, 'This court's decision will have significant implications for the Métis people of Saskatchewan.' And I think that's true," said lawyer Kathy Hodgson-Smith, who represented the defendants in their case.

"The Court of Appeal has really, for the first time, had an opportunity to review the Supreme Court of Canada jurisprudence on Aboriginal rights and reflect upon the approach necessary to deal with the Métis in Saskatchewan."

For years, Métis hunting and fishing rights have been fought for through the province's court system.

While previous court decisions allowed Métis people access to hunt on land in specific, traditionally used areas of the province, Boyer — who was charged in 2014 — and Poitras, charged in 2012, made a constitutional argument for those rights to apply to a more expansive, larger area.

A judge ruled that the men had been hunting and fishing outside the boundaries of the historic Métis community of northwest Saskatchewan — an area which includes Meadow Lake, Île à la Crosse and Green Lake — and their rights were not protected.

In the most recent decision, the appeal judges ruled that a new trial should be ordered as they weren't in a position to rule on the constitutional claim, but that the two men should have the right to advance one.

"Right now in Saskatchewan, we kind of have a patchwork quilt of rights," said Hodgson-Smith.

"The Court of Appeal has really brought clarity to this issue."

The lawyer said there are many other Métis hunting and fishing cases that are waiting for a decision in this matter.

A representative from the Ministry of Justice said in a statement that the department would not be commenting as the matter is still before the courts.

Traditional rights

Warren Boyer said the court decision has been a long time coming.

In 2014, he was ice fishing on Chitek Lake, roughly 60 kilometres southeast of Meadow Lake, when he was approached by a conservation officer.

He said he didn't have a fishing licence but presented his Métis card. He was charged with fishing without a licence.

Boyer said he has the right to hunt and fish for food in the area.

"It's been a hassle," he said.

"But a lot of people were fighting for Métis rights before me."

Richard Lam/The Canadian Press
Richard Lam/The Canadian Press

Meanwhile, Oliver Poitras, who was convicted of hunting without a licence south of Meadow Lake in 2012, said he's also glad there's been some movement in the case.

He calls the traditional hunting border an "imaginary line" and says his rights should extend beyond it.

He would like Métis hunters to have hunting rules similar to those for First Nations hunters.

"The intimidation would go right out of there," said Poitras.

"When you think you have a right to hunt and they go and charge you, that's intimidation."

Provincial discussions

A Métis leader believes the decision should ultimately lead to talks with the provincial government.

David Chartrand is president of the Manitoba Métis Federation, which applied for intervenor status in the Saskatchewan case. The decision sets the stage for changes to how traditional Métis gathering rights are looked at, he said.

"We cannot keep on judging people acre by acre or yard by yard," said Chartrand.

"Those days should now be set aside and we should be looking at 'where do we go from here?'"

Chartrand said an agreement is in place in Manitoba that sets clear guidelines for Métis hunters and fishers. That system works well, he said.

"We have our own seasons, we have our own limits," he said.

"And the same premise should lie within the rights of the Métis to create their own laws and establish the premise for making people no longer to be worried or treated like a criminal."

The federation applied for intervenor status because it's important to stand up for Métis rights, Chartrand says.

"We felt that that case showed a very strong position that Métis rights are mobile and those rights cannot be watered down by any provincial government," he said.

"At the end of the day, they have to follow the law."

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