A legal challenge by the Manitoba Métis Federation sought recognition for the treatment of its people after the 1870 government land deal that ended the Red River resistance.
The 6-2 ruling in Canada's highest court declared that "the Federal Crown failed to implement the land grant provision set out in s.31 of the Manitoba Act, 1870 in accordance with the honour of the Crown."
The federal government "acted with persistent inattention and failed to act diligently," the ruling explains, adding that it "could and should have done better."
"This was not a matter of occasional negligence, but of repeated mistakes and inaction that persisted for more than a decade," it says.
Writing the reasons for the majority decision, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and Justice Andromache Karakatsanis outlined lasting effects of the federal government's failure to honour obligations dating back 140 years.
"So long as the issue remains outstanding, the goal of reconciliation and constitutional harmony, recognized in s. 35 of the Charter and underlying s. 31 of the Manitoba Act, remains unachieved. The ongoing rift in the national fabric that s. 31 was adopted to cure remains unremedied," they wrote.
"The unfinished business of reconciliation of the Métis people with Canadian sovereignty is a matter of national and constitutional import," the ruling says.
Justices Marshall Rothstein and Michael Moldaver dissented from the majority view.
Negotiations now likely
The ruling ends three decades of legal challenges brought by the Métis against the federal government.
Friday's decision has not ordered any particular remedies, but it could open the door to land claim negotiations or talks toward other forms of compensation from the federal government.
The Métis argued that Ottawa reneged on its promises under the Manitoba Act, which created the province and brought it into Confederation.
The Manitoba Act, made in 1870, promised to set aside 5,565 square kilometres of land for 7,000 children of the Red River Métis. That land includes what is now the city of Winnipeg.
The land transfer to the Métis outlined in the Act was to be a "concrete measure" to reconcile with the Métis community, the ruling agrees, calling its "prompt and equitable implementation... fundamental."
The land grants were meant to give the Métis a head start in the race for land in the new province, and that meant the grants had to be made while a head start was still possible, the justices wrote. "Everyone concerned understood that a wave of settlement from Europe and Canada to the east would soon sweep over the province."
The land deal was made in order to settle the Red River resistance, which was fought by Métis struggling to hold onto their land amid growing white settlements.
However, it took 15 years for the lands to be completely distributed, while the Métis faced hostility from large numbers of incoming settlers.
Lower courts found in federal government's favour
The federal government ultimately distributed the land through a random lottery, destroying the dream of a Métis homeland.
"Section 31 conferred land rights on yet-to-be-identified individuals – the Métis children," the ruling says. "Yet the record leaves no doubt that it was a promise made to the Métis people collectively, in recognition of their distinct community. The honour of the Crown is thus engaged here."
In 2010, the Manitoba Court of Appeal upheld a lower court ruling that found the federal government did not violate its duty to the Métis.
The case then went to the Supreme Court of Canada, where lawyers for both sides presented their arguments in December 2011.
The Métis federation requested a declaration that the constitutional agreement was not upheld.
Federal lawyers argued that the case should be thrown out because it is more than a century old. They also said Ottawa didn't actually violate its side of the agreement.
Manitoba Métis Federation President David Chartrand said the ruling provides the vindication the MMF has been fighting for for years. He said he had been fielding emotional phone calls all morning.
“Such pride at home right now, and tears are being shed. They’re crying and they’re phoning,” Chartrand said.
“They can’t even talk on the phone properly because there’s so much joy at home right now.”
Chartrand said it is now time for the group to sit down and negotiate with the government of Canada. He said they have no interest in land but believes they should be compensated for what they have lost.
“Our country did not give us any kind of credence and respect and felt they just could take whatever they wanted, and today our justice system is saying, ‘No, you can’t. You were wrong. Now fix it,’” said Chartrand.
Winnipegger John Morrisseau is a descendant of the original Red River settlers. He said the ruling not only helps right a historical wrong but makes him optimistic for the future of government-Métis relations.
“It’s kind of put a different turn to it. So now, the government’s going to have to look at us a little different when we go to the table to negotiate,” said Morrisseau.
Chartrand said the negotiations are long overdue and added insight from Louis Riel, who spoke of the relationship between the federal government and the Métis during the Red River resistance.
"He said there were two societies with treaty together. One was small but in its smallness had its rights. The other was great but in its greatness had no greater rights than the rights of the small. You know, how more fitting can that be today?”
Historians, politicians laud decision
Manitoba historian Philippe Mailhot studied the 1870 negotiations between the Métis and the federal government and said he's pleased with the ruling.
“My reaction is extremely positive because what was said to the delegation from the Red River Settlement in terms of the distribution of land was not what actually happened,” said Mailhot.
Karen Busby, a professor of law at the University of Manitoba, was shocked by the decision, which she says will have major implications.
“This is an absolutely groundbreaking decision,” said Busby.
“The Manitoba Métis Federation and the individual plaintiffs lost on every point at the lower courts, and now, before the Supreme Court of Canada they’ve won on the most important point.”
MP Jean Crowder is the NDP’s aboriginal affairs critic. In a statement issued Friday afternoon, she said it was regrettable the federal government did not negotiate a settlement on the issue before the ruling was handed down.
Crowder said the federal government must now negotiate with the Métis in “good faith.”
Chartrand said after 140 years of waiting, a prompt response from the federal government is necessary.
“I think the onus is on Canada now to do the right thing now, quickly,” he said. “I think this prime minister will sit down with us. It’s my message to him: I’m expecting we should sit down."
The government of Canada issued a statement Friday saying it is reviewing the ruling.
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