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Could Metis membership applications spike after federal court ruling?

A federal court decision that classifies Metis as Indians, placing them under federal jurisdiction, may soon have more people lining up for membership cards.

Randy Ranville, a genealogist with the Metis Culture and Heritage Resource Centre in Winnipeg, helps Metis applicants dig through government scrips, Hudson's Bay Company employee records and the 1901 census for evidence their ancestors were designated "half-breeds."

"We're going to be swamped," he said, following the court decision Tuesday.

It could take years before the ruling translates into any actual benefits for Metis people — the same afforded to status Indians. The federal government would have to redevelop its policies; it's also expected to appeal the decision.

Still, said Ranville, people will want to get started with the process.

Metis people descend from European fur traders who married Indian women in the 18th century. As their numbers grew, they established distinct communities across the Prairie provinces and into Ontario, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories and the northern United States. The largest community was the Red River settlement in Manitoba.

According to the 2006 census, nearly 400,000 Canadians self-identified as Metis, although about half that number is officially recognized. Roughly 115,000 Metis have registered in Manitoba, Ranville said.

Each province has a Metis organization which registers members and outlines its own requirements for status.

Typically, proof lies in an official family tree, accompanied by birth certificates and other documentation with ties to the historic Metis homeland.

Fred Shore, a professor in native studies at the University of Manitoba, said many people consider themselves Metis just because there's native blood somewhere in their family tree.

"That does not a Metis make," said Shore.

"There's a lot of people like that in the country who have a half of this and a part of that. They're going to come forward and say 'Well, we're Metis. Where's my share of the cash?'"

Shore said there's a group of people in northern Labrador who claim to be Metis. They even use the Metis flag and honour Louis Riel. But they don't have a link to the Metis homeland.

He said it's likely going to take years for the federal government and Metis leaders to agree on a national registry system for Metis. He expects the process will be a mess.

"If you think the court cases you've had now are difficult — wait."

Ranville said many applicants in the past have been disappointed to find out they don't get free eye glasses or post-secondary education with their Metis designation.

But now there's hope they will someday. "A lot of Metis would say 'Oh, jump on the bandwagon and run with it," said Ranville.

But he also believes for some applicants, it's not about the money but simply finding out where they came from.

He remembers a large man who broke down in tears in his office because he was so happy to discover his heritage. For many, Ranville said, being Metis was a family secret discovered only after an older relative died and "brown people" showed up at the funeral claiming to be related.

"They come here quite fascinated and quite proud actually because they're part of a huge part of Canada's history."

The most prominent Metis leader, Louis Riel, led two resistance movements against the Canadian government, fighting to preserve Metis rights. He was hanged for treason in 1885 but the federal government officially recognized him as a founding father of Manitoba in 1992.

Metis culture is often identified with the Michif language, fiddle music, jig dance and woven sashes, said David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Metis Federation.

"The Metis have always been a proud, independent, strong people."

Chartrand said Metis memberships have increased in recent years and he expects the court decision will mean more applications.

But he said officials will be watching carefully to make sure they have historical proof.

"We don't want people coming out of nowhere saying 'Wow, there's a place I can get a free ride here.'"

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