09/09/2011 02:10 EDT | Updated 11/09/2011 05:12 EST

Métis challenge Morton over land rights

The council representing Alberta’s Métis is slamming Conservative leadership candidate Ted Morton for what they are calling "ignorant" comments about their land rights.

"For someone that is in charge of lands, we were a bit surprised by some of the comments he made," said Randy Hardy, president of the Métis Settlements General Council.

"They were a bit ignorant out of what the past history of the settlements were."

Morton was Sustainable Resource Development Minister between 2006 and 2009. He oversaw new and controversial land-use laws that led to allegations the government was trying to undermine the rights of private landowners.

In an email leaked to CBC News, dated Nov. 15, 2008, Morton directs his staff to revise legislation relating to the potential land rights of Métis people.

"’Métis settlements’ have never been considered ‘private lands’ in the conventional sense of the term in Alberta, and now is not the time to start," Morton wrote to his staff under the pseudonym Frederick Lee.

The use of such an address would make it difficult for anyone to obtain emails about government business through a freedom of information request. Morton denies doing anything wrong.

"If the Métis Settlements suddenly want to share in some of the potential benefits of private land ownership, do they also want to be the subject to all the other restrictions and duties that attach to private land ownership in Alberta? I doubt it. They cannot have their cake and eat it too," he wrote.

"The issue of eligibility of Métis Settlements lands for possible benefits under future Stewardship and Conservation programs is a legitimate question, but it is a question that will have to be discussed, not asserted."

Successive governments

Métis leaders are taking issue with Morton's email, arguing their land rights are well established.

"Over 20 years ago, with (Morton’s) party in power, we negotiated the ownership of our lands," Hardy said in a news release Friday. "We received letters patent from Her Majesty confirming our ownership in 1990. I am amazed that a minister of the Crown with land responsibilities could make such statements."

The Métis Settlements Council represents eight settlements in Alberta with more than 9,000 residents living on more than 250,000 acres of land.

Hardy said the Métis people have worked in partnership with successive governments, including several Conservative governments since the settlements were created in 1939.

After an all-candidates forum at CBC Edmonton on Friday, Morton said he enjoyed a close relationship with the Metis and never meant to offend them with his off-the-cuff cake comment.

“I say that about my caucus colleagues, about my kids. I apologize if the tone was offensive but the point was a technical one.”

Hardy has a different view of Morton's relationship with the Métis.

"To us, we don't look at him as being a potential premier of this province. We hope the party would pick someone that could walk the high ground with regard to native issues," Hardy said in an interview with CBC News.

"We weren't really surprised by his comment. He is not considered a friend of the Métis, Mr. Morton. I'm sure that the PC party will pick someone to replace the Hon. Premier Stelmach with someone that would know how to walk the high road when it comes to native issues."

Morton has said the practice of using a private email address for government business and the shredding of documents after leaving a cabinet post or government are common among both federal and provincial politicians.

Alberta’s Freedom of Information commissioner said he will conduct an investigation into Morton’s use of a secondary email address and the shredding of government documents.