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Fate of Métis scrip lawsuit in doubt after 17 Alberta plaintiffs ask to withdraw

President of the Fort McKay Metis Ron Quintal smiles after announcing they bought all of its land from the provincial government, in Edmonton Alta, on Wednesday March 28, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

The future of a lawsuit seeking to hold Canada accountable for the loss of Métis lands is in doubt after about a third of the plaintiffs asked to withdraw from the action when their legitimacy was questioned. 

The Métis Nation of Alberta says the move proves that it speaks for Alberta's Métis and that the provincial government's dealings with breakaway groups should stop.

"These are the same groups that the current provincial government props up and consults with to the exclusion of the vast majority of Métis in Alberta," vice-president Dan Cardinal said in a release.

The so-called Durocher case, filed in 2019, was brought by 17 Métis groups and individuals in Alberta and another 39 similar plaintiffs from Saskatchewan on behalf of all Métis in the area. It sought compensation for the loss of a vast amount of land in the northern reaches of the two provinces through the issuance of scrip certificates to Métis around the turn of the last century. 

The scrip was supposed to be redeemable for land. 

The available land, however, was far from the Métis homelands. Much scrip was bought by speculators for pennies on the dollar from people who didn't understand the deal they were making.

The lawsuit sought damages, a declaration that Métis still hold title to the land and negotiations toward a land claim.

But that lawsuit is now on hold. The Alberta plaintiffs have asked to be removed from it after the Métis Nation of Alberta and the federal government challenged the legitimacy of their claim to represent all Métis.  

In addition to 10 individuals, the groups withdrawing from the legal action are the Métis associations in Athabasca Landing, Fort McKay, Lakeland, Willow Lake, Owl River and Conklin. The 17th plaintiff, Chard Métis Dene Inc., has been dissolved. 

"When the light of scrutiny is on them, it's telling that they say we'll just withdraw," said Jason Madden, lawyer for the Métis Nation. 

Métis Nation president Audrey Poitras said in a news release that any scrip settlement must be negotiated with representatives of all Métis.

"Justice requires that any benefits that come from litigation or a negotiated settlement will be for the benefit of all of the descendants of Métis scrip, not just a few self-appointed individuals and private corporations they control."

The groups that brought the claim are only a few years old, said Madden. The Métis Nation of Alberta was founded in 1928.  

The fate of the case is now uncertain, Madden said. 

"All the parties have agreed to a three-month adjournment to give the Saskatchewan parties a chance to decide what they're going to do next."

Madden said the withdrawal of the 17 plaintiffs now makes it clear that the Métis Nation of Alberta has the right to speak for Métis in the province. He pointed out the United Conservative Party government has been eager to consult and work with the breakaway groups who have now backed off from Durocher.  

That relationship should end, said Cardinal.

"We hope that the same judicial scrutiny will be applied to the backroom deals between the Kenney government and these self-appointed individuals and groups to ensure that all negotiations represent the interests of all Métis citizens."

Neither the lawyer for the breakaway groups nor their representatives could be immediately reached for comment. 

In the release, Poitras acknowledges the issue of compensation for loss of land through the scrip program needs more urgency. She said her group signed a deal with Ottawa in 2019 that included negotiations over scrip, but little has happened since then.

"Little progress has been made with Canada," she said. "We will be consulting with our citizens as well as our democratic governance structures at the local and regional levels on what we should do next.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 4, 2022.

-- Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960 

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

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