The telephone town hall hosted by the province on Mar. 17 to discuss Bill 57 is not what consultation looks like according to the Métis Settlements General Council, and the majority of settlements do not support the amendments presented.
At a meeting after the town hall, the Métis Settlements General Council passed a motion in regards to the modernized Métis Settlements Act “to not support the amendments that have been presented by the provincial government due to a lack of meaningful consultation,” said Lehr.
He said the motion was supported by seven of the eight Métis Settlements in Alberta, with one abstention. Asked which settlement had abstained and why, Lehr said it would be inappropriate for him to point the finger.
In an e-mailed statement on Mar. 19, Kathy Lepine, a councilor for the Elizabeth Metis Settlement said “The MSGC has a MOU and a framework agreement with the federal government. This process is a trilateral process because of our agreement and relationship with the Province of Alberta. Our relationship with the province must be maintained and MSGC and the province must sit down and work together along with the federal government to fulfill the framework agreement and MOU. Our differences over Bill 57 must be worked out in order to fulfill the agreements with the federal government as we are a Statute of Alberta.”
Minister of Indigenous Relations Rick Wilson, opened the town hall with a review of the proposed changes, citing the need for improved transparency and sustainability of the eight settlements as the goals of the legislation.
Wilson said the changes proposed are “not heavy-handed.” They include reducing the number of councilors from five per settlement to a minimum of three and a maximum of five; reducing the number of executive positions on the Metis Settlements General Council from four to two; increasing the variety of service charges and fines settlements can levy from their members; and removing the provincial Indigenous Relations minister from decisions related to the General Council’s financial policies.
“I’m confident these changes are going to free you up to achieve much more on your own terms, and in your own way,” said Wilson in his opening remarks.
However, Lehr was not pleased with the town hall process saying it felt too structured as to what questions were being asked and felt the process was vetted too much to be a real discussion.
“There should have been the opportunity for the debate,” said Lehr.
“Not only should the minister be on the call and another MLA sitting beside him and his staff, they should have allowed one representative from the General Council, like myself or another Chairman to sit there and give their responses to those questions, as well to those members, then you would have had some true democracy.”
According to Minister Wilson’s office, there were more than 80 people registered for the call, which was managed by an outside company.
“We only had an hour. So we tried to have kind of like this rapid round, ask as many questions as they could. We had a couple of little technical glitches where me and Laila [Goodridge, MLA] had to have a little personal exchange while they got things back on track,” said Wilson.
One of the chief complaints of the Settlements during this process has been the perception that the province is trying to make them into municipalities instead of helping them to achieve their section 35 rights with the federal government.
Wilson says that’s not the case and that the province is trying to expand the revenue tools available to the Settlements.
“What we’ve done is we’ve allowed them to go after grants that any community is eligible for and on top of that they have their own line of grants that they can access,” said Wilson, giving the Aboriginal Business Investment Fund and Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation as examples of places where Métis Settlements can go for funding.
But Karen Telford, the Chair of Fishing Lake Métis Settlement said because they don’t have the same kind of economic base as towns or counties expanding their ability to charge for services or levy fines for breaking bylaws doesn’t accomplish the goal of making the settlements self-sufficient.
“It’s pretty hard to tax our community members more when they don’t own the land,” said Telford.
Lands with Métis titles can only be owned by Métis settlement members or the Métis Settlement. They can not be sold or otherwise transferred to non-settlement members or organizations. Because of this, Métis people living on settlements are not able to access traditional mortgages or financing for their homes and do not build equity in those properties the way other Albertans do.
According to Telford, Fishing Lake also doesn’t have a lot in the way of commercial or industrial employers so the bulk of Settlement members travel to other communities to work and to access services.
“We have a small confectionary which provides very basic grocery stuff, and we have gas. We have a K-8 school and some jobs through our administration office, and a few jobs with oil and gas. But there’s very few jobs within the community so people have to go to camp, or elsewhere for employment,” said Telford. “Taxing members who are already underprivileged is difficult,” she said.
According to Wilson, that limited tax base is part of the reason why the province is pushing to get the Métis Settlements more involved in bigger business opportunities.
“There’s a couple of really good projects that we’ve steered in their direction that we want them to get involved with. And that will make them self-sustainable,” said Wilson.
Changing the changes?
Another issue raised in recent weeks is that Wilson and his office did not provide the Métis Settlements with a full copy of the proposed changes prior to introducing the legislation, and the changes proposed in Bill 57 are not the ones the Settlements had asked for.
Wilson said he doesn’t even get a full copy of the bill until the day it is presented in the legislature because before it is tabled it is still being worked on by ministerial staff, and the way legislation is written, if you change the language in a single section you may have to make changes in four other places.
“We’ve worked with the settlements and people for over a year to get some of these changes made. It’s 30-year-old legislation,” said Wilson.
Telford acknowledged there had been a number of letters between Indigenous Relations and Fishing Lake regarding the proposed changes, but she said there were additional changes in the bill which were never discussed.
“And some of those changes were definitely more divisive I would say. Because there was some stuff that we wanted changed and he hasn’t put those ones forward,” said Telford.
Asked to give an example, Telford said the General Council had asked to have section 75(2) removed on a number of occasions. Section 75(2) allows for people who were registered as First Nations by their parents, but who are connected to the Métis community to be admitted as Métis Settlement members.
In an interview earlier this week, Lehr explained 75(2) as causing a lot of problems with people being registered as both First Nations and Métis. He said the General Council had proposed a 10-year window for the practice to end, and has passed three motions requesting the section be removed from the Métis Settlements Act.
“Some of the changes that they wanted were fairly, what I would call substantial changes. That’s going to make real changes to some of their members. And I told their council that for those type of changes, they really need to go out and engage their people before I would consider making a change like that,” said Wilson.
He said the Settlements had the opportunity to do those consultations over the past year, noting the province had delayed introducing Bill 57 in order to give them more time to do that, “but nothing ever came forward that showed me that that engagement had taken place.”
According to Telford, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve been unable to hold community meetings and tried surveys instead.
“But that’s not engagement. That’s not meaningful engagement. There’s no dialogue, there’s just a question with no context, so it’s very hard to get that feedback and proper feedback,” said Telford.
‘More empowering changes’
Asked why the legislation had to be introduced now instead of delaying further for more consultation in the communities, Wilson said there are a few deadlines coming up.
The Long Term Funding Agreement between the Métis Settlements and the Province expires in 2023 “and we need the transition period to get through to that.”
The councils of the settlements are also due to have their elections this fall and Wilson wants the legislation to be in place before those elections happen.
“I think we’ve been fairly generous on the timing to try to get these amendments forward. They’re not really big changes, they’re more empowering changes, nothing heavy-handed,” said Wilson.