President Gary Lipinski of the Métis Nation of Ontario announced March 5 that he plans to retire. Métis trace their ancestry to both European and indigenous cultures, and have developed their own identity over the centuries. While they are one of the three recognized Aboriginal Peoples in the Constitution, the Métis have had to fight to get their distinct status recognized by Canadians and their government.
From Fort Frances, the 56 year-old Lipinski has been the head of the Ottawa-based Métis Nation of Ontario since 2008. But his involvement with Métis advocacy dates from well before then. He spoke with TVO.org about his time in Métis politics, what he’s accomplished, and what’s left to be done. The following is a transcript of the interview. It has been annotated and edited for clarity and length.
Q: The first question is the obvious one – why choose now to retire?
A: I’ve been working in the [Métis Nation of Ontario]’s world of politics for two decades. I’ve been on the executive for 17 years, and president for the last eight. I’ve made a pretty substantial commitment and seen a lot of wonderful things happen. But anyone who’s served recognizes there’s a lot of personal sacrifice. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished and what we’ve done, but I’m looking at the balance sheet.
I want to spend more time with my family, and get back to the land—enjoy the things that are important to me, fishing, hunting, and harvesting. It’s not easy, because I know there’s lots of work and lots of good things ahead on the horizon.
Q: You’ve been with the MNO since the beginning, in 1993?
A: Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of the early struggles with the Métis in Ontario, whether it was just getting our harvesting rights recognized in the Powley case, and since 2008 working with the province to settle a new framework for collaboration. For me, that was a real watershed moment—leaving behind an era of denial, and moving into an era of reconciliation. I think we’ve achieved a lot of results.
Q: Why do you think that took so long? 1993 is pretty late in Canadian indigenous history, much less 2008.
A: The challenge we had in Ontario is that prior to 1993 we were represented by pan-aboriginal lobby groups that had a lot of non-status Indians and Métis in the mix, and since it wasn’t specifically Métis membership, a lot of the concerns they were addressing were concerns specifically for First Nations. In those days one of those issues was restoring status for people who’d lost it in previous laws. So in 1993 MNO raised our flag to add our distinct voice for people here.
Q: Ontarians may not be aware of the size of the Métis population in Ontario. Has that been something you’ve had to work against?
A: A lot of people think the Métis are more prominent in western provinces, but the most recent census showed Ontario having the second-largest Métis population in Canada, at around 86,000 people. Alberta came in first and Manitoba in third, which surprised a lot of people.
More than the numbers, part of the problem is that people aren’t aware of some of the historical facts about Métis in Ontario. People might be aware of Louis Riel or the Manitoba Uprising and Batoche, but not about the history in Ontario. For our part, we just haven’t told the Ontario Métis story well enough. There are really significant historical markers, and that’s part of what MNO will need to continue doing in partnership with schools and the Ontario government. One obvious example would be the Métis participation in the War of 1812 and helping to establish Canada’s borders. Getting that into the public knowledge is part of our work, part of our challenge.
Q: There have been a few important legal changes for the Métis in Canada in the last few years. The biggest is the Daniels case, right?
A: That’s correct. It’s been heard by the Federal Court of Appeal and we’re expecting a decision from the Supreme Court any day now. The issue is whether Métis issues are the responsibility of the federal government or provincial government. We go to one level of government and they say “no, ask the other one.” We think the federal court’s decision is going to be upheld, that Métis people fall under federal jurisdiction. Interestingly enough, the Inuit had to make the same case in 1939 in the Re Eskimos decision.
That’s part of the misperception society has. People think we have the same rights and benefits that are made available to First Nations, but we don’t. Métis children don’t get the same funding that’s available for aboriginal university, or the same health care funding. There are services and funding available to help First Nations and Inuit reach some par with mainstream society. None of those benefits are available to Métis people.
Q: Whether the Supreme Court upholds the current decision or not, it sounds like you’d be better off with any decision, just to have some clarity.
A: Absolutely. Settling the issue once and for all will hopefully allow some real dialogue. One level of the Crown or another is going to have to deal with us.
Q: The other recent big change is provincial—the government passed the Métis Nation of Ontario Secretariat Act last year. What does that mean for Métis people in Ontario?
A: We’ve got a unique governance structure, built by Métis people for Métis people. We wanted some kind of legislative recognition to protect that. First Nations bands are recognized as legal entities through the Indian Act, Métis governments are not. So in order to do business, to be recognized, Métis governments have been incorporated under the Non-Profit Corporations Act, something that law was never intended for. There are huge problems with that, so it’s very important that we got the MNO Secretariat Act passed.
Q: What kind of things is your successor at the MNO looking at in the near future?
A: That was the hard part for me, because there’s some great stuff coming! The Daniels decision will come down any day now, which will let us work with the federal government to address some of those service gaps. It’s also in the Liberal Party of Canada’s platform and the new cabinet’s mandate letters, so we think that issue will see a lot of movement.
Also, Métis currently are the only aboriginal people in Canada who don’t have a process for dealing with our historic land claims and other grievances. First Nations have been dealing with that for decades, the Inuit have had a complete reshaping of the country’s north, but the Métis have not. The Supreme Court has said this is necessary, and we’ll be working on a land-claims process in Ontario. That’s going to be exciting. We expect to see a lot of progress in the next year or two.
Then there are some of our more bread-and-butter issues: working on climate change, developing renewable energy projects in our communities—I’ve heard MNO is one of the largest aboriginal renewable energy producers in Ontario. Being able to continue moving on that and create economic opportunities is a high priority for us. There’s also our Métis Voyageur Development Fund, which we use to create jobs and grow Métis businesses.
It’s been a wonderful honour and pleasure to serve in this capacity at the MNO, and it’s been really remarkable to have a positive relationship with the province of Ontario on a number of fronts. We’ve been able to achieve a lot, and I’m thankful for my team at MNO and our partners in government. I’m leaving on a high note.
Lipinski will remain president of the Métis Nation of Ontario until a successor is chosen in May.
Main image credit: Métis Nation of Ontario
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