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Métis in land lawsuit claim they were robbed

Last Updated Mon, 03 Apr 2006 20:45:47 EDT

CBC News

Métis people held a rally and then marched to a courthouse in downtown Winnipeg on Monday as a massive land-claim lawsuit filed 25 years ago finally headed to court.

The courtroom was filled to capacity at the start of the historic case.

The Manitoba Métis Federation filed the claim for 566,000 hectares (1.4 million acres) of the Red River Valley along the Red and Assiniboine rivers. The land had been granted to Métis descendants of the Red River settlement when Manitoba entered Confederation.

"A constitutional obligation, a legal obligation, has been ignored and denied by Canada, and Canada, in my view – and I'll use layman's language – robbed us of our land," said federation president David Chartrand.

The court dispute focuses on how that land ended up being transferred back to the government or to private landowners.

Case to probe Manitoba's beginnings

In his opening arguments, federation lawyer Tom Berger said the case will centre on two sections of the Manitoba Act, which created the province in 1870.

The act was created following negotiations between Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald and the provisional government led by Métis leader Louis Riel.

One section called for Ottawa to set aside land for the Métis. The other section said land along the rivers already occupied by the Métis would not be taken away even though the Métis did not have official deeds.

The federation claims the land was stolen by the federal and provincial governments and crooked land speculators. The Métis federation argues that the governments shouldn't have allowed the Métis to sign over their land so easily.

Berger says the majority of his case will be based on historical documents. He says thousands of pages of documents support his case, such as communications between Riel and Macdonald.

Deny breaching act

The governments of Manitoba and Canada deny the charges. Department of Justice spokesman Christian Girouard says the land transfers, although unfortunate, did not breach the Manitoba Act.

"The government of Canada and Manitoba take the view there was a substantial compliance with any statutory obligations of the government of the day," Girouard said.

Chartrand says Manitobans don't have to worry about the potential results of the lawsuit hurting their quality of life.

"Clearly, at the end of the day, I think everybody [knows] that Manitobans who own land today properly bought it in their eyes legally, from a government that was portraying it as legally theirs," he said.

The trial is scheduled to take three months, although both sides have indicated they don't think Manitoba's Court of Queen's Bench will make the final ruling on the issue.

If an out-of-court settlement isn't reached, the trial is expected to be the first step to Canada's Supreme Court.

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