“…where a son cannot work for his father”

Natives fishing Sault Ste. Marie circa 1869.
William Armstrong/National Archives

But if there is justice, as I still hope, oh dear, it seems to me I have become insane to hope still.

— Louis Riel, 1885 ((Quoted by Louis Flanagan, “Louis Riel’s Trial Speeches,” in Hans V. Hansen, Riel’s Defence: Perspectives on His Speeches (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014).))

The legendary Métis leader Louis Riel lamented the injustice suffered by his people, of which he is the greatest exemplar, having been found guilty by the settler court “of a crime the most pernicious and greatest that man can commit”: high treason. For this Riel was hanged in 1885.

The Métis are a people of mixed heritage, originally designated as mix of French and First Nation ethnicity. The definition has since been expanded to include all ethnicities mixed with natives. This definitional unclarity, however, formed the basis of the Ontario government case against Métis hunter Steve Powley.

Powley and his son Roddy were charged in 1993 under the Ontario Game and Fish Act after they killed a moose near Bawating (Sault Ste Marie) without a moose-hunting license.

Powley argued that section 35 (2) of the 1982 Canada Act delineated aboriginal rights as belonging to “aboriginal peoples of Canada,” which includes Métis peoples. In the landmark R. v. Powley decision, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled that Powley and his son have the same hunting rights as a “full-status Indian.”

The ruling was specific to Powley and his Métis community but no expert seriously considers that one Métis community enjoys greater rights than another Métis community. Therefore, the ruling is considered to embrace all 300,000 Métis citizens in communities across Canada.

Despite the Powley decision, Ontario authorities continue to stymie Métis rights.

Allan Bjornaa Jr. is a member of the Ontario Métis and Aboriginal Association from Batchewana Bay, Ontario. Batchewana First Nation peoples are indigenous to the Great Lakes region and at Bawating. His father, Allan Bjornaa Sr., is a Batchewana First Nation fisherman who catches whitefish and lake trout in Lake Superior.

Bjornaa Jr. released an email sent out on 24 January 2005 from David McLeish of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR). McLeish stated, “In the case of Aboriginal communities engaged in commercial fishing activities, it is MNR’s preference to negotiate consensus arrangements, leading toward [a treaty], which can include provision for the inclusion of non-community members in the fishery.”

Bjornaa Jr. states, “Fishing has been the lifeblood of not only my family but my entire community of Batchewana Bay. Up until recently, I was allowed to work for my father, but, as it stands now, the Ministry of Natural Resources has imposed a ban on non-Batchewana Band members on their boats. I cannot find another instance anywhere in Canada where a son cannot work for his father. The MNR has threatened me with criminal charges and has threatened my father with the seizure of his equipment. The only thing criminal here is the blatant discrimination the government is showing towards not only Batchewana Band members but proud Métis fisherman as well.”

An MNR employee confirmed the policy against non-Aboriginals on commercial fish boats. Attempts to achieve further confirmation by phone and email went unanswered before press time.

Bjornaa Jr. wonders why he cannot fish if Métis rights are indeed enshrined in the settler’s constitution. He asks, “Is it a crime for a native to marry a white woman? Should his children suffer because the woman he loves is white?”

There is a distrust of government.

“The government has went too far in trying to govern what they have no right to govern,” says Bjornaa Jr. “Native fishing should be governed by natives. My father is a good man and is concerned with preservation of the lakes. He has showed us to respect the lake.”

“This is not only affecting my family but all native fishermen here. There are boats that are sitting at the harbor because the government is forcing boat owners to discriminate against Métis and whites alike.”

Bjornaa Jr. supports this with an anecdote: “My father tried to post a job listing at the local government job bank with the stipulation that ‘Batchewana Band members need only apply.’ He was told that he could not post that listing because it was ‘discriminating based on race.’ My father then told them that it was the government that was forcing him to be a ‘racist’ as they put it.”

On his father’s boat Bjornaa Jr. worked with other “non-status natives and whites.” Bjornaa Jr. tells that there was camaraderie among fishermen regardless of ethnicity. Governmental officials, however, are dividing the fishermen along ethnic lines.

Currently there are cases involving Métis fishing rights that are in the Ontario settler justice system. Perhaps Riel’s “insane” hope persists.

  • First published at The Dominion.
  • Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at gmail.com. Read other articles by Kim.