OTTAWA — Two rival Metis groups in British Columbia are locked in an ugly public battle that has gone all the way to the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
Officials in the office of federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt are now keeping an eye on how the open feud between the province's two major Metis organizations is playing out.
Metis Nation British Columbia, which is a governing member of the Metis National Council, is at odds with the B.C. Metis Federation. Together, they represent almost 17,000 of the province's 59,000 Metis people.
There are separate legal processes underway involving the dispute in British Columbia, which recently worked its way to both the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.
The human-rights commission is now looking into an allegation that the federal government discriminated against some Metis people by only funding the MNBC and not the federation.
The federation wants to be recognized as a credible alternative to the MNBC, which it accuses of restricting membership and limiting access to federally funded programs and services. The federation alleges that by funding only the MNBC, the federal government is excluding those Metis not among its ranks.
Canada's Metis represent a fragile and ill-defined population that's on the cusp of having a major stake in aboriginal politics in this country, depending on the eventual outcome of a long-standing court battle.
The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and several Metis and non-status Indians took the federal government to court in 1999, alleging discrimination because they were not considered "Indians" under a section of the Constitution Act.
Last year, the Federal Court recognized them as "Indians" under the Constitution, a ruling upheld earlier this year by the Federal Court of Appeal. The federal government could appeal that finding at the Supreme Court.
Depending on the outcome, a final decision it could start the ball rolling on a long legal process that might eventually open the door to financial benefits and more programs and services for Metis people.
Federal officials in Ottawa are cautiously watching the events unfold.
They got an earful last week when representatives from the federation travelled to Ottawa to complain about the results of an audit of their provincial rival that, until recently, had never been made public.
The Canadian Press first reported that the Metis National Council and its provincial affiliates — one of which is the MNBC — had come under scrutiny for their management practices and financial controls.
The 2012 audit found apparent conflicts of interest and expenses that should have been ineligible for federal funding under the terms of their contribution agreements with the government.
Keith Henry, the head of the federation, said he was left disappointed by last week's meeting with Leo Doyle, the department's director for Metis and non-status Indian relations, and negotiator Jeffrey Betker.
"I really feel that the government officials have lost sight of the fact that they've got a fiduciary obligation to all Metis, not just a select few," Henry said.
"They've clearly tried to demonize and personalize this somehow between the federation, me specifically, against MNBC. It's not about that.
"We're really trying to address injustice that's happened by an organization on its own people for years. I spent great time trying to explain that, but government officials are playing politics in our community, and that's really what it boils down to."
Henry said he felt slightly more encouraged after his meeting with Bryn Gray, one of Valcourt's policy and legal advisers.
"We have got a commitment from the minister's office that they're going to look into the issues they raised ... but I'm not overly optimistic at this point given the nature of the way the meetings with the officials went."
Valcourt's office declined to comment. A statement from department spokeswoman Valerie Hache did not address the dispute between the B.C. groups.
"The government recognizes the tremendous potential of Metis people to strengthen the growing Canadian economy," Hache wrote.
Metis Nation British Columbia president Bruce Dumont declined to comment, but did provide a letter he sent to Valcourt last month in response to the actions and "spurious statements" of the federation.
Dumont took exception to a public letter from Henry that criticized the MNBC over the findings of a 2012 audit.
Dumont said the MNBC has since addressed the audit's findings — one of which had to do with the advances paid to staff.
He said Henry, the MNBC's former executive director, had an outstanding advance of nearly $20,000 when he left the organization in 2008.
"Mr. Henry was the executive director of MNBC from 2003 through until September 2008 (a portion of the period covered by the audit) until he was given a choice by the board of directors of MNBC to either quit or be fired for unprofessional conduct," wrote Dumont.
But Henry brushed off Dumont's letter.
"They're just trying to personalize it. It's ridiculous," he said.
"I expect to be attacked, quite frankly. So they can write what they want to write. They're going to say what they're going to say, right? The facts don't support them. The organization has huge issues."