On April 14, 2016 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Métis and non-status Indians are “Indians” under section 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867. “They are all Indians under section 91(24) by virtue of the fact they are all Aboriginal peoples,” wrote Justice Rosalie Abella.The central issue in this case arose from the federal government’s denial that it had jurisdiction over Métis and non-status Indians under section 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867. This denial had been used by the federal government as a justification to refuse to deal with Métis and non-status Indians and to exclude us from federal programs and benefits. The declaratory ruling in the Daniels case does not compel the federal government to do anything, but relies upon the honour of the Crown to respond appropriately.“In the absence of a defined Constitutional process to finish the work we started in 1983, the courts remain the only vehicle to obtain legal recognition of our rights,” said Harry Daniels, in 1998. In 1978, Harry Daniels, President of the Native Council of Canada (now the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples), spoke to the Special Joint Committee of the Senate and House of Commons on the Constitution of Canada:“To leave the ambiguous provisions of the BNA act dealing with Indians so open-ended in the proposed amendments is to condemn native people in Canada to a future plagued by the whims and biases of legislative expediency. All of the Métis people and tens of thousands of Indians have been deprived of their constitutional rights since 1867. This has been accomplished by laws of expedience, by administrative fiat, and by what amounts to an arbitrary and certainly unilateral process of a shrinking definition of who is an Indian under the Indian Act.”On June 16, 2014, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP) filed a leave to appeal Daniels to the the top court on the grounds that the Federal Court of Appeal had erred in excluding non-status Indians from the declaration granted previously by the Federal Court and for failing to grant ancillary declarations, including the obligation to negotiate and consult with Métis and non-status Indians, as to our rights, interests and needs as Aboriginal Peoples. CAP had also argued that the Federal Court of Appeal had erred in emphasizing the test for s.35 Métis identity in Powley, thereby adopting a more restrictive approach to the meaning of Métis, than Justice Phelan in the Federal Court. In today’s decision, the Supreme Court of Canada overturned the decision of the Federal Court of Appeals that to be “Métis” they must meet the Powley criteria.
“Today, when you celebrate your hundred years, oh Canada, I am sad for all the Indian people throughout the land.”Dan George recalls Canada “when your forests were mine,” when they gave him meat and clothing and when fish flashed in abundant rivers and streams. But in the long hundred years since the white man came, he says he has seen his freedom disappear.
“When I fought to protect my land and my home, I was called a savage. When I neither understood nor welcomed this way of life, I was called lazy. When I tried to rule my people, I was stripped of my authority,” he says.
The speech ends with a call to rise again, like “the thunderbird of old” and to seize the white man’s education and skills. It predicts young braves and chiefs will sit in the houses of government and law.“So shall the next hundred years be the greatest in the proud history of our tribes and nations,” it concludes.George’s address was so revolutionary, his daughter Amy George recalls, she feared he would be killed for delivering it. She was in her 20s and the assassination of U.S. president John F. Kennedy was fresh in her mind.“Some people did get very angry, too. When we were walking off the field at the stadium, some people were saying ‘You’re nuts!’ and they were throwing bottles and empty cups at us,” she says.There hasn’t been much improvement in how Canada treats First Nations since George’s speech, says his grandson Rueben George. He points to disproportionately high numbers of Indigenous kids in government care and inadequate funding for housing, education and clean water on reserves.But just as his grandfather envisioned, Indigenous people are sitting in the House of Commons and the courts, and have a say in resource projects on their lands, says Rueben.“We took back what is ours. That’s our identity, our culture, our spirituality … our law,” he says.Later in 1967, singer-songwriter Ann Mortifee performed with George in a groundbreaking play, “The Ecstasy of Rita Joe,” about a young Aboriginal woman. Mortifee, who was 20, says George opened her eyes to the brutality of colonialism.“I feel profoundly privileged to have lived through that moment in history,” she says. “He was like a portal into a richer world for me and he changed my life.”The text of Chief Dan George’s speech “A Lament for Confederation:”How long have I known you, Oh Canada? A hundred years? Yes, a hundred years. And many, many seelanum more. And today, when you celebrate your hundred years, Oh Canada, I am sad for all the Indian people throughout the land.For I have known you when your forests were mine; when they gave me my meat and my clothing. I have known you in your streams and rivers where your fish flashed and danced in the sun, where the waters said ‘come, come and eat of my abundance.’ I have known you in the freedom of the winds. And my spirit, like the winds, once roamed your good lands.But in the long hundred years since the white man came, I have seen my freedom disappear like the salmon going mysteriously out to sea. The white man’s strange customs, which I could not understand, pressed down upon me until I could no longer breathe.When I fought to protect my land and my home, I was called a savage. When I neither understood nor welcomed his way of life, I was called lazy. When I tried to rule my people, I was stripped of my authority.My nation was ignored in your history textbooks – they were little more important in the history of Canada than the buffalo that ranged the plains. I was ridiculed in your plays and motion pictures, and when I drank your fire-water, I got drunk – very, very drunk. And I forgot.Oh Canada, how can I celebrate with you this centenary, this hundred years? Shall I thank you for the reserves that are left to me of my beautiful forests? For the canned fish of my rivers? For the loss of my pride and authority, even among my own people? For the lack of my will to fight back? No! I must forget what’s past and gone.Oh God in heaven!
Give me back the courage of the olden chiefs.
Let me wrestle with my surroundings. Let me again, as in the days of old, dominate my environment. Let me humbly accept this new culture and through it rise up and go on.Oh God!
Like the thunderbird of old I shall rise again out of the sea; I shall grab the instruments of the white man’s success – his education, his skills, and with these new tools I shall build my race into the proudest segment of your society. Before I follow the great chiefs who have gone before us,
Oh Canada, I shall see these things come to pass.I shall see our young braves and our chiefs sitting in the houses of law and government, ruling and being ruled by the knowledge and freedoms of our great land.
So shall we shatter the barriers of our isolation. So shall the next hundred years be the greatest in the proud history of our tribes and nations.