The test set out in R v Powley for Métis rights requires that a Métis community’s distinct nature be sought out, but does not require that the underlying practices and traditions be distinct.
This case involved an application brought against Mr. Corneau, and other alleged offenders, for occupying sites on public lands without any property right, lease or occupancy permit contrary to s.54 of The Act Respecting the Lands in the Domain of the State (“the Act”). Mr. Courneau contested the application on the basis that he belongs to a Métis community which confers rights to occupy the alleged public lands. It was held at trial that Mr. Corneau did not meet the requirements of the test set out in R v Powley for Métis rights. Mr. Corneau has appealed the decision, calling into question the trial court’s assessment of: (i) the evidence following the identification of the historic Métis community; (ii) the existence of a modern community; (iii) the appellants’ membership in the modern community and (iv) the period of control. In the end, the Québec Court of Appeal (“the Court”) dismissed the appeals and ordered that Mr. Corneau abandon the sites and return the premises to their former condition.
The Court began by reviewing the R v Powley decision, which clarified the test for identifying a Métis community’s rights. It first began by observing that the term Métis is not a matter of genetics, but rather of culture and identity. As articulated by the Supreme Court of Canada (“SCC”), the term Métis “does not encompass all individuals with mixed Indian and European heritage; rather it refers to distinctive peoples who, in addition to their mixed ancestry, developed their own customs, way of life and recognizable group identity”. Furthermore, a Métis community are “a group of Métis, with a distinctive collective identity, living together in the same geographic area.” The Court then identified the constitutionally protected Métis rights as those rights subsisting in Métis communities that emerged between first contact and the effective imposition of European control. The focus therefore is on rights that existed “post-contact”, for example after a particular Métis community arose, but also “pre-control”, or before it came under the effective control of European laws and customs.
The Court then reviewed the factual matrix as presented by the trial court. The trial court found the evidence adduced by the appellants to be insufficient to establish an identifiable historic Métis community that would allow mixed individuals to be distinguished from their biological authors. This was decided after consideration of the evidence presented by historians, genealogists and anthropologists. It was also the opinion of the trial judge that even if there was a historic community of Métis tied to the land in question, there was no modern community holding the right being claimed. Finally, in consideration of the personal circumstances of Mr. Corneau, the trial judge found the evidence of self-identification with a Métis community unconvincing. The trial court observed that: (1) Mr. Corneau’s self-identification occurred later in life and was driven by opportunism; (2) that his ancestral connection did not, on the balance of probabilities, belong to an historic Métis community; and that (3) the absence of a cultural tie between the Métis organizations and his ancestral Métis community suggest that there is not, on the balance of probabilities, sufficient evidence of the existence of the right claimed.
The Court then set out the standard of review as requiring a palpable and overriding error standard for questions of mixed fact and law. It noted that, as per R v Van der Peet, courts must not undervalue the evidence of Aboriginal claimants simply because there is no evidence conforming to the evidentiary standards of other areas of law, such as a private law torts case. It also cited Mitchell v MRN, which highlighted that while Aboriginal claims must still be established on the basis of persuasive evidence, their forms of evidence must also be afforded equal and due treatment.
In respect of issue (i) and (ii), the Court agreed with the trial court that there was no historic Métis community, but upheld the appellants’ contention that the trial court applied the test too strictly. The Court observed that the test, as applied by the trial court, takes for granted that the practise and traditions of the community in question must be distinct, while the SCC only required that the distinctive nature be sought out. Nonetheless, this error is not determinative, as it does not change the conclusion of the Court that there was no historic community holding rights to be claimed. Specifically, the Court agreed that the appellants’ expert witnesses failed to meaningfully question the evidence of historian Russel Bouchard. Evidence from Bouchard was relied on to build the claim that the individuals from mixed marriages between Euro-Canadians and Indians defended their diversity as a cultural and identity marker. The respondents, however, presented evidence suggesting that such marriages did not result in a distinct community, but rather integration into the already established Montagnais community and later into Euro Canada. In the end, the practices or traditions must also be proved. While the Court does not directly address the issues of whether there exists a modern Métis community, they are not required to as they have concluded that no historic community existed.
In respect of issue (iii), the Court held that the trial court erred in their comparison of the historic Métis community of Sault Ste Marie with the alleged historic Métis community of Domaine du Roy and Mingan Seignory. In particular, the Court held that the trial court’s strict application of the factors of density and proximity is inappropriate. As stated by the Court, “it is possible to imagine that members of a historic community could settle in several separate locations while forming a single regional unit.” An historic community can be regional and nomadic.
In respect of issue (iv) the Court agreed with the trial court’s contention that control over the territory in question occurred between 1842 and 1850. Both the appellants and the respondents contest this finding. The appellants argued that the correct time period ought to be after 1856 when Aboriginal people were displaced following the creation of reserves, relying on primitive land surveys between 1843 and 1860, indicated in the installation of a municipal regime and administration of justice, to support this position. The Court found, however, that they failed to submit sufficient evidence to illustrate a palpable and overriding error on the part of the trial court.
The respondents argued that the trial court erred in analyzing the evidence based on the legal criterion for control. The Court dismissed this position on the basis that the expert evidence relied on by the respondents mis-categorized the Domaine du Roi territory as one governed by the seigneurial land grant system, under which control was established between 1733 and 1767. Under cross-examination it was revealed that no primary or secondary sources refer to Domaine du Roi as a secondary estate. Instead, the Domaine du Roi was preserved for the fur trade and no land grants were offered in respect of it and ended in 1842 when the government included a condition in a renewed lease of the Hudson’s Bay Company that the government could have the land surveyed and could settle colonists in any part of the Domaine suitable for agricultural colonization. Thus, the Court found that the evidence supported the approach taken by the trial court.