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Provincial court recognizes Metis hunting rights

George Young, Raven's Eye Writer, Vancouver

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On April 8, the British Columbia Provincial Court ruled in the case of R. v Willison and found in favor of Metis rights.

Gregory Willison, a member of the Metis Provincial Council of British Columbia (MPCBC), had been charged with hunting without a license when he was stopped by a B.C. government conservation officer and found in possession of a deer.

The decision confirms the existence of a contemporary Metis community in the Okanagan Thompson area and recognizes their constitutional hunting rights.

The case is the first application in the province of the recent Supreme Court of Canada decision in R. v Powley, which found that Metis have hunting rights that are recognized and protected by s. 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982.

Bruce Dumont, interim president of the Metis council, said in a press release that Metis are very appreciative of the decision.

"We are hopeful that this will change the B.C. government's position about Metis rights in this province. Up to now they have denied that there were any historic Metis communities in B.C. that would satisfy the Powley test. This judgement shows that they are wrong. We hope now the provincial government will do the right thing and sit down with us to work out how Metis people in this province can exercise their constitutionally-entrenched rights," said Dumont.

The Powley test is a list of 10 conditions that must be met in order for someone to be identified as having Metis rights by law. What the Powley test does not provide is a definition of who is Metis. The question of who is Metis is an issue that is still before the courts.

Metis National Council (MNC) President Clem Chartier warned that while the Willison decision is a positive step forward, the battle for the recognition of Metis harvesting rights with the government is not over.

"I think likely that [the provincial government] will appeal it to a higher court. In the meantime, hopefully they will become more engaged with the Metis leadership, the MPCBC and the MNC, in a multi-lateral process with the federal government and the provincial governments. Hopefully they will come to the table and acknowledge that yes, at least some people in B.C. have harvesting rights, said Chartier.

The Willison decision also brought to issue the greater question of what constitutes a Metis traditional community. The Powley decision limited the Metis community to the immediate area around Sault Ste Marie. The Willison decision identified a much larger area, encompassing the "Environs of Falkland," an area that is not site-specific and includes the Okanagan/Thompson area from old Fort Kamloops, south through the Okanagan Valley to Fort Okanagan in the United States.

Chartier said that up until now, governments had been advocating that Metis communities had to be identified on a case by case or site-specific basis, something that the MNC and its provincial member organizations have been trying to get away from. Chartier said that the Willison decision recognizes a region as a Metis community, something that he says he would like to see expanded to a national scale.

MPCBC executive director Keith Henry told Raven's Eye that his organization needs to be on top of this decision, but now is a time of much uncertainty in B.C. The election on May 17 could bring in a new group of players and slow negotiations between MPCBC and the provincial government.

Henry said action is needed now to establish a comprehensive harvesting agreement with the province, as many Metis will want to begin exercising their rights immediately. Henry advised caution and restraint on the part of the Metis community until an agreement can be put into effect.

"We have been working on developing a full, detailed harvesting act. We are hoping to have it implemented by September of 2005, so it's not that far away," he said.

Henry also dispelled the fear-mongering that suggests the Willison decision will lead to increased huting in the province.

"In B.C. we have about 44,000 Metis people. Of that we have got about 1,500 to 2,000 hunters. A lot of them are using the existing harvesting policies enforced by the province with their existing harvesting regime. I don't think that there will be a lot of new people who harvest because most of the people who are identified with the harvest are older and have been harvesters all their lives," he said.

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