As Indigenous leaders engage in heated debate over a federal bill that would formalize several Métis self-governance agreements, the Liberal minister for Crown-Indigenous relations is expected to face tough questions on Wednesday afternoon.

While the leaders of Métis groups in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario say the legislation would unlock new opportunities and foster a new relationship with Ottawa, prominent First Nations voices are raising concerns about irreparable damage to treaty rights.

They say that with the bill, the federal government is essentially giving Métis organizations a blank sheet of paper to write treaties on, with no oversight.

Now it's Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree's turn to take questions at the House of Commons Indigenous and northern affairs committee, which has been studying Bill C-53 for more than a month.

His appearance comes after weeks of acrimonious testimony.

The Chiefs of Ontario, a group representing the heads of Ontario First Nations, has gone so far as to say that some Métis communities in that province have no historical basis to exist, and do not meet the legal threshold to be recognized as having rights.

Earlier this month, when Nipissing First Nation Chief Scott McLeod was asked what would make the bill more palatable, he said the government should "remove" the Métis Nation of Ontario.

The Assembly of First Nations, which represents some 630 First Nations across Canada, unanimously passed a resolution at its annual general assembly in July to protect First Nations from what it calls "unfounded Métis rights."

It also included a demand for Canada to cease all negotiations with the Métis Nation of Ontario until First Nations are meaningfully consulted.

Liberal minister to testify after heated testimony from Métis, First Nations groups. #CDNPoli #BillC53

The assembly's interim national chief, Joanna Bernard, told the committee on Tuesday that "First Nations have raised serious, credible concerns about the potential impacts of Bill C-53 advancing without proper consultation."

The Métis Nation of Ontario has said First Nations don't need to be consulted at this stage, as nothing about the bill as it's currently written will affect First Nations' rights.

The bill is a positive step forward that does nothing to harm other Indigenous groups, the group has insisted, arguing that the idea that land and resource rights could be on the table later on is a good thing, despite First Nations' opposition to a potential land-based treaty.

Anandasangaree told The Canadian Press last month that the federal government could enter into treaties with Métis nations later on, and "we will at some point get to that stage." At that time, more consultation would need to take place, he said.

In committee, Liberal MP Jaime Battiste has pushed back on First Nations leaders who are sounding the alarm over the possible treaties, pointing out that some existing treaties concern peace and friendship rather than land.

He has also brought many discussions back to a 2003 decision from the Supreme Court that laid out a set of criteria to determine who is entitled to Métis rights.

Even other Métis organizations have been raising concerns about the Ontario group, however, including the Manitoba Métis Federation, the Métis Nation-Saskatchewan and the Métis Nation British Columbia.

The concerns, in part, revolve around six new nations the Métis Nation of Ontario has decided to recognize — those the Chiefs of Ontario claims have no historical basis to exist.

There needs to be further review, the Saskatchewan group said in a letter to the Ontario group's president, Margaret Froh, in July.

It called on her organization to satisfy a resolution passed at the Métis National Council's general assembly to undertake a review of the six new historic communities.

"Until this issue is rectified through an independent expert panel," the letter said, the Saskatchewan group would not be able to "in good faith advocate for the inclusion of those communities in any negotiations with the federal government."

Will Goodon of the Manitoba Métis Federation testified earlier this month that Canada needs to ask itself who it is dealing with.

"It is not the historic Métis nation," he said. "The people who call themselves Métis in Ontario wrap themselves in the flag of the Red River Métis. That's our flag that was flown at Seven Oaks, at Red River (in Manitoba)."

Froh told the committee that her organization has been working hard to dispel myths and misinformation being spread about the bill, including about the new historic communities.

A young member of the Métis Nation of Ontario, Hayden Stenlund, testified in committee that it's frustrating for him and his mother, who is a councillor for the group, to "continually stand up and defend" their community and its membership.

"I strongly believe Métis self-government will help us maintain our way of life and allow us to govern ourselves in the Métis way, for all of our future descendants," the 17-year-old said.

Despite its resolution about Ontario nations, the president of the Métis National Council, Cassidy Caron, told the committee last week that she supports the bill.

So does Métis Nation of Alberta president Andrea Sandmaier, who told MPs: "We know that when one nation advances, it sets the path for all of us to move forward."

Sandmaier urged that the passage of the bill wouldn't affect anyone outside of the three organizations included in its text.

"But failing to pass Bill C-53 will hurt Métis people and the advancement of Indigenous rights across the board," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2023.

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