WINNIPEg – David Chartrand has been president of the Manitoba Metis Federation since 1997 — an incredible 24-year, seven-term run leading the main political body representing the province’s Métis community.
In Manitoba (and Canada, for that matter), there simply is no one else in Métis politics with his stature and status. For example, when Clément Chartier announced he was stepping down as president of the Métis National Council in 2019, Chartrand basically took over the organization and has been its “national spokesperson” since.
However, it’s frankly unknown if Chartrand is popular amongst Métis or not. No one polls an approval rating, and Chartrand has won his last two terms through acclamation, so there is no objective data to draw from.
While such acclamation (the latest coming in 2018) could come from Chartrand’s appeal, it’s more likely due to the fact the MMF constitution makes it difficult to run for president.
To qualify as a candidate, a Métis citizen must have served at least six years as a volunteer and elected MFF official — a demanding, unpaid, and time-consuming role — and then be prepared to do the exhausting and costly work of running a province-wide campaign.
Chartrand may be president forever.
While this may seem dictator-like, it’s important to identify he has achieved some of the most important steps ever taken for Métis in this country.
During his time in office, Chartrand has taken the MMF from virtual bankruptcy to thriving organization. He has brokered millions of dollars of programming for Métis citizens, built funding to support Métis students, and won court battles for Métis rights and land claims.
Some of these successes have come from Chartrand’s emergence as the de facto Indigenous voice for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberal party, supporting such things as the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, while condemning former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould during the SNC-Lavalin Group saga in 2019.
Chartrand has said of Trudeau: “There’s never anyone who’s spent so much political capital in trying to make a difference in Indigenous lives in this country.”
Chartrand’s more-recent moves, however, have led to a growing number of Métis voicing great concern over the direction of the federation.
A letter to its leadership, co-written by 40 young (aged 20-40), professional Métis citizens who call themselves “Red River Echoes,” says the MMF has grown “out of touch with many of its members.”
They say this is due to Chartrand’s criticism of Wet’suwet’en activists during protests over a B.C. gas pipeline project; his dismissal of “calls to change the names of buildings named after people who killed and hurt Indigenous people;” and the “decision to force houseless people living near the MMF building to move somewhere else instead of offering them help and support.”
The group writes: “These actions from the MMF go directly against what we Métis see as our responsibility to each other, to other Indigenous people and to our communities.”
Speaking on behalf of the group, Allie Hartman said, “(While) we are not seeking Chartrand’s resignation at this time, we have deep concerns with processes within the MMF and demand systemic change. We don’t feel the MMF represents us anymore.”
The group is vowing to introduce constitutional changes and challenge Chartrand’s grip on the MMF.
“Why is it so much easier to run for MP then it is for the MMF?” asked Breanne Lavallee-Heckert.
The letter was spurred by last weekend’s full-page MMF ads run in the Winnipeg Free Press and Winnipeg Sun in support of the Winnipeg Police Service.
In the ads, the MMF applauds WPS Chief Danny Smyth “for defending and protecting the integrity and character” of a “noble profession,” while protecting the public and breaking down racial barriers.
When asked why he ran the ads, Chartrand said: “It’s good to show respect where respect is due.”
At the very minimum, Chartrand’s endorsement of the WPS couldn’t come at a more contentious time. The day after the ads appeared was International Day Against Police Brutality, and Manitoba’s Indigenous community is still reeling from the 2020 police shooting of teen Eishia Hudson.
Rather predictably, the MMF ads sparked Métis outrage across Canada.
An online letter to “Metis Leaders” signed by hundreds of Métis promised to “push back” against Chartrand because: “We cannot condone the MMF, or any Métis political organization, supporting ongoing police control and violence.”
This showdown, between an aging, seemingly-permanent and politically-entrenched Métis president and young, professional Métis, is on one level remarkable; representing a shift in the MMF and a dialogue that needs to happen for it’s future.
It’s also about a leader holding onto power no matter the cost. Even if it means leaving those he has power over behind.
Originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press in March 2021. Republished with the permission of the author.
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