Métis Nation of Ontario's future at stake as members vote on fate of thousands

Métis Nation of Ontario president Margaret Froh says the plebiscite is about seeking clarity. (Métis Nation of Ontario - image credit)
Métis Nation of Ontario president Margaret Froh says the plebiscite is about seeking clarity. (Métis Nation of Ontario - image credit)

The fate of thousands of Métis Nation of Ontario (MNO) members with no documented link to a Métis ancestor hangs in the balance as the organization votes this week in a province-wide plebiscite.

The vote comes following years of factionalism and turmoil at the Métis National Council (MNC), driven in part by questions about the integrity of the MNO's membership.

The question before the MNO's 27,000 or so members is this: Should 5,400 of those members whose files lack hard evidence of a Métis connection be removed from the registry?

Whichever way it goes, the members have the organization's future in their hands as they cast their ballots, said MNO President Margaret Froh.

"This is about Métis self-determination. We need clarity," Froh said.

"One of the very first things that any self-governing Indigenous nation does is clearly identify who it represents."

If the members vote yes, the MNO can say it represents members with verifiable ties to communities the MNO recognizes as Métis.

In that case, Froh would have to call a special assembly to seek direction. No one would lose membership immediately, but the assembly would face the sensitive question of what to do with — and potentially how to dump — the rejected members.

But if they vote no, Froh has another problem on her hands: How can the MNO, as a Métis association, knowingly represent people whose identity it can't vouch for?

"That's something we will have to sort out," Froh said.

"It's an issue that will have to be resolved if we're going to move forward in advancing our rights assertions."

Manitoba group slams 'pan-Indigenous agenda'

Debates about Métis identity turned Ontario into a battleground in recent years, with both First Nations and other Métis groups questioning the MNO's registry.

The Métis are a distinct Indigenous people that emerged through the fusion of First Nations and European cultures in the west of what is now Canada. But groups from eastern regions like Quebec and the Maritimes continue to emerge, laying so-far unsuccessful claims to Métis rights.

A 2021 report commissioned by the MNO showed the majority of its members trace their ancestry to communities whose legitimacy the Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF), representing the Red River Métis, disputes.

The review showed about 23 per cent — or nearly one in four — MNO members had incomplete files. (Froh said that number is now at 18 per cent.) Less than 4,000 of the MNO's 24,000 citizens at the time — or about 16 per cent — traced their ancestry to western Canada.

Jeff Stapleton/CBC
Jeff Stapleton/CBC

MMF leadership for years accused the MNO of "opening the floodgates" to easterners who may have Indigenous ancestry, but aren't Métis. In an emailed statement to CBC News, the MMF accused the MNO of turning its back on the historic Métis Nation.

"The MNO, along with their side clubs, continue to push their pan-Indigenous agenda," said President David Chartrand, referring to the other provincial branches of the national council.

"The MMF was a founding member of the MNC and that organization's purpose was served."

The MMF, the Métis Nation-Saskatchewan and the Métis Nation of Alberta created the national council in 1983. British Columbia and Ontario joined in the 1990s.

The MMF broke from the council in 2021 over the citizenship struggle, after Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta formed an alliance dubbed the tri-council.

Froh said her critics are sharing misinformation.

She points out the MNO led the watershed Powley court case, which sparked the Supreme Court of Canada's 2003 affirmation of Métis constitutional rights.

The high court also confirmed the existence of a historic Métis community near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., in the upper Great Lakes region, more than 1,000 kilometres east of Winnipeg.

"There is no doubt as to the credibility of the Métis Nation of Ontario as a Métis government," she said.

"The MNO has been a leader in advancing Métis rights across this country — and we continue to lead."

The deadline to vote is Feb. 28.