Herb Lehr isn’t giving up on Alberta making changes to Bill 57, the Métis Settlements Amendment Act, before third and final reading, but he’s also not counting on it.
In fact, Lehr, president of the Métis Settlements General Council (MSGC), says that Bill 57 becoming law will allow the general council to take stronger legal action.
“Until it’s proclaimed you can’t do anything legally about it. An injunction does nothing. We know all that. It’s not our first rodeo either. We have to wait until the legislation is either passed or that the UCP (government) comes to some kind of realization that perhaps they overstepped their stuff and, with enough public outcry, they’ll say, ‘You’re right’,” said Lehr.
At the heart of the matter is the claim that Bill 57 was drafted without consultation with the membership of the eight Métis Settlements that comprise the MSGC.
“In order to do consultation you have to have an actual document in order to consult,” said Lehr, who contends they didn’t see Bill 57 until 45 minutes after Indigenous Relations Minister Rick Wilson tabled it for first reading on March 11. It received second reading March 15.
Twenty-one pages of correspondence shared with Windspeaker.com shows emailed letters that went between Wilson and the MSGC from June 10, 2020 to March 8, 2021. As early as June 30, 2020, the MSGC was requesting drafts of the amendments to the Métis Settlements Act (MSA) that Wilson was proposing. On Nov. 25 further correspondence came from Wilson listing additional amendments; no drafts were included.
In its Dec. 2 response, the MSGC accused the Alberta government of “unilaterally and prematurely terminating the consultation process …. We wish to be clear that our leadership is unified in the principle that our membership must be consulted with respect to all substantive amendments proposed to the MSA.”
A consultation plan developed in February 2020 had to be abandoned when the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Lehr says with internet connectivity issues and most residents not having land lines, alternate forms of consulting were challenging.
However, it’s not only the lack of consultation that has raised concerns, says Harold Blyan, vice chair of the Buffalo Lake Métis Settlement (BLMS).
Blyan calls out Wilson for proposing amendments to increase financial stability for the settlements without adding details as to how this will be accomplished. He also says Wilson’s call for the settlements to implement an essential services bylaw will see some “very poor people” taxed beyond what they’re capable of paying.
“They want us to do what any other municipalities, town, city does. The difference though is that in the larger municipalities and towns, you have huge tax bases. Lots of people, lots of business, lots of infrastructure that you can tax. We don’t have that here,” said Blyan.
Wilson was asked to attend an emergency MSGC assembly on March 17 in Edmonton, but instead scheduled conference calls with each settlement council. Lehr refers to Wilson’s move as “divide and conquer.”
BLMS was one settlement that chose not to speak with Wilson.
“The legislation is drafted. It’s received second reading. What’s the point of talking now? He needs to talk to us before the legislation is drafted so we can have input into the draft. The only thing he would be doing now is coming to us and say, ‘Hey, this is what I’m doing’,” said Blyan.
At the MSGC emergency assembly, seven of the eight Métis Settlements supported a motion rejecting the revisions outlined in Bill 57. One settlement, which Lehr would not name, officially abstained because of a lack of quorum. However, he noted the settlement “has a huge ask into the province and are scared to jeopardize it from retaliation.”
That same evening, Wilson hosted a telephone town hall with Métis Settlement members. Lehr didn’t participate but he said he was told Wilson’s responses were inadequate. Lehr questioned why Wilson couldn’t have engaged in a series of telephone town halls as a means to consult with membership while drafting Bill 57.
Lehr accuses the province of wanting to sabotage on-going trilateral negotiations.
“The provincial government is forcing something down our throats because they know that we don’t want to get into a fight with them because I don’t want to have irreparable damage to a negotiation that’s currently going on between them, the federal government and ourselves under Section 35 rights as Métis,” said Lehr.
The Daniels Supreme Court of Canada decision, which came down in 2016, found that the Métis are the fiduciary responsibility of the federal government. However, Métis Settlements in Alberta fall under provincial legislation.
“The provincial government is refusing to let go and is not recognizing the honour of the Crown when it comes to the federal government. I have to have every t crossed and every i dotted in order to litigate,” said Lehr.
The MSGC signed a framework agreement with the federal government in 2018 which, in part, recognizes that Alberta may be an “observer or party” in negotiations.
Lehr says that at existing trilateral tables, MSGC has a submission to the federal government for $500 million to fund shovel-ready infrastructure projects, a quarter of the amount Lehr believes the Settlements are entitled to. Lehr says the money is part of the commitment made by the federal Liberals in their Throne Speech to continue to “close the infrastructure gap in Indigenous communities.” For the Métis Settlements, he says, that would mean $2 billion to cover infrastructure.
“The stuff we’ve been getting from the province has been Band Aids all along,” said Lehr.
Blyan says Wilson’s lack of consultation “flies in the face” of Sect. 35 rights and what the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) call for.
Lehr goes a step further in his criticism.
“I understand I live in a province that, I’m sorry to say, still supports systemic racism; that had no desire to work with reconciliation of Indigenous people; that’s fighting against UNDRIP; that’s fighting against taking and owning any of the things they’ve done wrong against Indigenous people,” he said.
In an email statement provided to Windspeaker.com, Wilson said, in part, “I am deeply committed to proper consultation…. MSGC executive, settlement chairs and councils have been aware of our intent to modernize the Metis Settlements Act (MSA), and they were asked for their feedback throughout the past year.”
Wilson said he and Indigenous Relations officials met with the MSGC 19 times in the past year. He also said that he offered to have calls with each Métis Settlement “to clarify any pieces of the legislation they may have questions about.”
Wilson said he would be “happy to host” another telephone town hall in the coming weeks.
By Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Windspeaker.com, Windspeaker.com