After facing push back on a number of fronts for proceeding with legal action, 17 plaintiffs from northern Alberta have decided to withdraw from the litigation known as the Durocher land claim.
The decision is “not a political gesture,” said Ron Quintal, listed in the Durocher claim as both an individual and as the president of the Fort McKay Métis Community Association.
It’s a matter of prioritizing the needs of the communities above a legal battle that will be costly and could result in a loss, he said.
In October 2019, the Alberta Métis plaintiffs joined with northwestern Métis individual and organization plaintiffs in Saskatchewan to lay claim to 120,000 square-kilometres of land spanning northern parts of both provinces.
They asserted that this area was promised to the Métis through scrip notes and then was fraudulently taken from them. In the 1800s, as European settlers were moving into the west, the federal government devised a system of providing Métis families scrip, or promissory notes, that could be used toward the purchase of land or redeemed for money. Many Métis were defrauded of their scrip by land speculators, or the process of redeeming the note for land was purposely made legally complex, personally expensive to Métis to travel to land offices, and lands to be made available to Métis were severely restricted, favouring settler claims to lands.
“When we first entered into the litigation back in 2019 there was an interest from our end to look at entering into this for the purpose of making a statement to the federal government, essentially, that there are more Métis communities here that aren’t represented by certain political organizations,” said Quintal.
In June 2019, the federal government had signed Métis government recognition and self-government framework agreements with the Métis Nation of Alberta (MNA) and Métis Nation-Saskatchewan (MN-S). Quintal had been involved in a very public battle with the MNA, pulling the Fort McKay Métis Community Association (now known as the Fort McKay Métis Nation) out of the MNA to negotiate its future on its own.
When the Durocher court action was launched, said Quintal, the federal government expressed a willingness to negotiate. However, COVID hit in early 2020 and negotiation tables shut down.
Since then, there has been a “fallout in the land claim,” said Quintal.
First Nations in the region “figured we were coming in to blanket-claim certain territories where reserves and that were at, so there was a great deal of animosity there.”
This February, the federal government brought a motion to federal court to dismiss the Durocher claim, said Crown Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada spokesperson Matthew Gutsch in an email interview with Windspeaker.com.
Gutsch said the MNA and MN-S had also filed motions to intervene in Durocher.
Quintal says Canada informed them that Treaty 8 and the Athabasca Tribal Council would also be intervening.
On June 6, the MNA confirmed its intention to intervene, adding that the Métis Settlements General Council and MNA’s Fort Chipewyan Métis Local were also seeking intervener status.
With the change from a negotiation table, paid for by the federal government, to court action, which would have to be bankrolled by the Métis plaintiffs at more than $1 million, “it just got really difficult and it’s going to be very difficult,” said Quintal.
“We jumped the gun, essentially” in 2019, he said.
Muddying the waters further was the fact that some of the individual Durocher plaintiffs were represented by the MNA or the MN-S. Also at issue is having individuals named in a claim fighting for rights affirmed in Sect. 35 of Canada’s Constitution, which are collective Aboriginal rights and not individual rights.
Quintal said a part of the litigation battle was to emphasize the need for the federal government to consult with them, which was the very thing the Métis plaintiffs did not do with the First Nations in the claim area.
“We withdrew because we need to do some work with our First Nations brothers and sisters, so instead of them intervening, they can have a firm understanding of what it is we're trying to achieve. So we could potentially either get support or that we have an agreement in principle that they will not intervene or try to create any barriers to hold up any type of assertion,” said Quintal.
In 2019, the hope had been that a “political grandstand” would result in a negotiation table where they would be “able to try to weed out some of these questions that are being developed. But a negotiation table to litigation table, it wouldn't hold water at the end of the day,” said Quintal.
Gutsch said the Durocher litigation proceedings had been adjourned until the end of July “to allow time for the parties to consider any next steps.”
The Alberta group of plaintiffs will be holding a strategic planning session in the next month, says Quintal. He said the Saskatchewan plaintiffs are also considering their next steps and their decision will be “endorsed” by the Alberta plaintiffs.
In moving forward, Quintal says his group would be willing to work with the MNA toward the resolution of the scrip issue.
“There's always been an appetite for us to look at the potential of either synergies or coordination. However, the Métis Nation of Alberta has had zero appetite. They've made it very clear… they represent all Métis, card holding or not. MNA is the only hierarchy of Métis rights in Alberta,” said Quintal.
In its June 6 news release, the MNA referred to the Durocher plaintiffs as “self-appointed individuals and groups (that) do not represent the vast majority of Métis Nation citizens who live in northeastern Alberta and who are represented through the MNA’s democratic government at the local and regional levels.”
Negotiation of Métis scrip was included in the framework agreement signed between the MNA and the federal government.
“Unfortunately, to date, little progress has been made with Canada on advancing this issue of fundamental importance to Alberta Métis. Over the next few months, we will be consulting with our citizens as well as our democratic governance structures at the local and regional levels on what we should do next,” said MNA President Audrey Poitras in a statement.
Gutsch did not respond to the direct question from Windspeaker.com on the status of scrip negotiations. Instead, he addressed generally the framework agreement, stating, “We look forward to continuing to work together to advance this important joint work in a spirit of reconciliation and partnership to close socio-economic gaps and build a better future for the benefit of their citizens and all Canadians.”
By Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Windspeaker.com, Windspeaker.com