Daniels v. Canada, a historic Supreme Court ruling
On April 14, 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Federal Government has Constitutional responsibility for Métis and non-Status Indians, marking a historic victory for Indigenous peoples in Canada and ending a 17-year legal battle.
The Daniels case was about obtaining a declaration stating that Métis and non-status Indians be recognized as Indians under section 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1982. Plaintiffs asked the Court to declare that the Queen owes a fiduciary duty to them, and that they have the right to be consulted by the Federal Government on a collective basis, as a show of respect for their rights, interests, and needs as Indigenous People. Too often, the Provincial and Federal Governments refused to accept jurisdiction over Métis and non-status Indians, often trying to draw a line between status Indians and other Indigenous people.
Harry Daniels, a Métis from Saskatchewan, was the leader of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP), now known as the Indigenous Peoples’ Assembly of Canada (IPAC), from 1997 to 2000 and its predecessor, the Native Council of Canada from 1975 to 1981. A committed and passionate defender of Aboriginal rights, Harry joined with Leah Gardner, a non-status Anishnabe woman, and Terry Joudrey, a non-status Mi’kmaq man, to launch the case of Daniels v. Canada in court. The Indigenous Peoples’ Assembly of Canada and Gabriel Daniels, Harry’s son, were the other named plaintiffs in the case.
On January 8, 2013, the Federal Court Judge Michael Phelan granted the first declaration that Métis and non-status Indians are “Indians” under section 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867. The judge noted that there was not a case made to claim a right for specific legislation or access to a specific program. The focus of this case was solely based on inclusion under the Constitution, which was granted. The judge noted in his decision that the fiduciary relationship exists as a matter of law flowing from the declaration that Métis and non-status Indians are “Indians” pursuant to section 91(24). The relationship engages the honour of the Crown and applies to Métis, as well as non-status Indians.
The Federal Government appealed the Federal Court’s decision which was heard in October 2013, and that ruling was released on April 17, 2014.
IPAC (formerly known as the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples) appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada and argued that Canada has a fiduciary duty to all Indigenous People – that the Métis and non-status Indian Peoples of Canada have the right to be consulted and negotiated with by the Federal Government on a collective basis, through representatives of their choice, who respects their rights, interests, and needs as Indigenous Peoples.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeals of both IPAC and Canada in the Daniels case. The hearing took place on October 8, 2015. Intervener status was also granted by the Supreme Court, which was extended to 12 groups.
On April 14, 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada made the final decision on this important issue which will significantly impact the relationship between the Government of Canada, Métis, and non-status Indians.
“After 17 years of jurisdictional wrangling, the Supreme Court has resolved this matter. Indigenous Peoples are ready to settle claims, implement rights, unlock human potential, and even prepare for self-governments for Métis and Indian communities outside of the Indian Act structures,” stated National Chief Dwight Dorey.
IPAC agrees with the Supreme Court that this decision “will have enormous practical utility” for Métis and non-Status people. IPAC also agrees with the Supreme Court that the constitutional issue now decided “is all about the federal government’s relationship with Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples,” a relationship that has been too often been plagued by avoidance of responsibility. IPAC also agrees that the Supreme Court decision “guarantees both certainty and accountability.”
There has been severe and lasting damage to Indigenous Peoples who are not recognized or registered as off-reserve Indians. Legislation had divided families and communities according to externally-created categories and destabilized social structures necessary for communities to function. These categories prevented Indigenous people from defining who belongs to their communities according to their own traditions and continued the cycle of assimilation.
Previously, in 1982, Mr. Daniels was successful in having Métis and non-status Indians recognized under section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. Unfortunately, there was no constitutional definition pertaining to Métis or non-status. This case was launched only to resolve the jurisdictional quagmire and to prove that all Indigenous People have a place in Confederation.
The Daniels case represents a lifetime of work by the late Harry Daniels and his search for social justice for Métis and non-status Indigenous People of Canada.