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Indigenous identity summit commits to advocating against NunatuKavut, Ontario Métis

Todd Russell, president of the NunatuKavut Community Council, talks to the media in St. John's on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016.THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Paul Daly

OTTAWA — A two-day summit on Indigenous identity fraud wrapped up Wednesday with a message to Canada: we're joining forces, and we want action to curb the epidemic.

The summit, hosted by the Manitoba Métis Federation and the Chiefs of Ontario, was lauded by First Nations, Inuit and Red River Métis leaders as a historic occasion.

The leaders passed two resolutions that specifically target the Métis Nation of Ontario and the NunatuKavut Community Council — organizations they collectively say are co-opting Indigenous identities for personal gain. 

They unanimously adopted a declaration condemning any person or group that "falsely claims" Indigenous identity for their own gain. The declaration says doing so furthers the marginalization of First Nations, Inuit and Red River Métis voices.

"The intent of this summit is not to pick a fight," said Manitoba Métis Federation president David Chartrand. 

"We have every right and all responsibility to stand up for ourselves and protect our identity. The time to bring this to a head is now."

The resolution against the NunatuKavut Community Council, passed Wednesday, calls on the federal government and Newfoundland and Labrador to "cease their actions accommodating Indigenous identity theft" by working with the organization and giving it access to benefits.

It also calls for criminal law reforms to ensure funds set aside for Indigenous Peoples are not misappropriated by individuals or organizations "fraudulently claiming Indigenous identity."

The NunatuKavut Community Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Tuesday's resolution called on Canada to cease all negotiations with the Métis Nation of Ontario and for Ontario to retract the identification of six new communities the province recognized in 2017. It also urges the federal and provincial governments to stop "accommodating Indigenous identity theft" and to take proactive steps with "legitimate rights holders" to protect their constitutional and inherent rights.

The Manitoba Métis Federation and the Chiefs of Ontario hotly contest a federal piece of legislation that seeks to formally recognize the Métis Nation of Ontario, raising concerns about membership criteria and the six new communities the province recognized in 2017. 

The future of Bill C-53 remains uncertain, as the Métis Nation — Saskatchewan, which was included, pulled its support, citing legal and political concerns with the Ontario group and the Métis Nation of Alberta.

The Chiefs of Ontario and the Manitoba Métis Federation have called the bill the "ultimate reward of identity theft at a collective level," while Métis Nation of Ontario president Margaret Froh has consistently stepped out to defend her organization and its membership.

"It is deeply disappointing that we have reached a point where once firm allies cannot sit down and discuss the issues currently affecting our peoples," Froh, who was denied a speaking role at the summit, said in a statement Wednesday. 

"Despite the MMF’s best efforts to confuse and distract people from our achievements and rights recognition, and to undermine every Métis government, we stand strong in who we are and are singularly focused on supporting our citizens as their democratically elected Métis government."

In a letter to Métis Nation of Ontario members this month, Froh said that, in the face of the Manitoba Métis Federation’s "continued and calculated campaign to erase the history of Métis communities in Ontario," it’s important to share stories "rooted in facts."

The Ontario organization began releasing short videos attempting to do just that, including one about Métis in the Sault Ste. Marie area, and is encouraging members to share those videos. It also created a website called "Ontario Métis Facts" that showcases stories from and about Métis communities in Ontario.

"All the images, videos and original source materials you need with none of the spin," the site reads.

The Manitoba Métis Federation, which represents descendants of the Red River — people of mixed European and First Nations ancestry who underwent "ethnogenesis," or self-identity, around the 1800s and created a distinct culture — takes issue with people defining Métis as simply having mixed ancestry.

The Métis Nation of Ontario, however, says while some of its members are connected to the Red River, others are not, and that distinct Métis communities existed in Ontario.

The Chiefs of Ontario, meanwhile, say the Métis Nation of Ontario is encroaching on their territory without a historical presence in the area.

"We have come together as the legitimate Indigenous Nations to show the generations to come that we are united in fighting for their future," said Ontario regional chief Glen Hare. 

"Legitimate rights-holders have put Canada and the fraudulent organizations they endorse on notice — we will not give in."

Located east of Ontario, Innu Nation Grand Chief Simon Pokue and Nunatsiavut Government president Johannes Lampe raised concerns at the summit about the NunatuKavut Community Council, which represents some 6,000 people in south and central Labrador who say they are Inuit.

The organization previously called itself the Labrador Métis Nation, and defends the name change by saying it was made decades ago when the make up of representative Indigenous groups "was constantly in flux."

Todd Russell, who heads the organization and previously served as a Liberal member of Parliament for Labrador, has called accusations his group is not legitimate "defamatory," and has publicly blasted the president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami for saying as much.

Natan Obed penned an open letter to Canadians in November urging governments to guard against the erosion of Indigenous rights and status by refusing to recognize groups such as this one.

On Wednesday, Pokue further criticized the federal government, saying it is supporting the "recolonization" of Indigenous Peoples by backing and working with what he called fraudulent groups. 

In November, a spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree said the council isn't receiving resources dedicated for Inuit. 

In a photo posted on X, formerly Twitter, Russell is seen standing beside Anandasangaree after a meeting last week in Ottawa.

"NCC continues to work hard to advance the rights and recognition of NunatuKavut Inuit," the post reads.

According to leaders from the Manitoba Métis Federation, the Chiefs of Ontario and the Innu Nation, Anandasangaree did not reach out to speak about the concerns raised during the summit, nor was he invited.

As for the next time these leaders meet, they'll be open to letting the minister attend if his government follows the recommendations they've developed.

"Otherwise, don't bother coming," said Chartrand.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 15, 2024.

Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press

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