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Rift emerges among Métis National Council leaders

David Chartrand, of the Manitoba Metis Federation, takes part in a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday March 8, 2013.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Bitter infighting has erupted among the leaders of the group that represents the country's Métis people.

The rift pits four of the five heads of the provincial Métis organizations that sit on the Métis National Council's board of governors against a fifth member and president Clement Chartier.

Internal correspondence shows the leaders of Métis groups in four provinces have been trying for months to hold a board meeting.

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They say they want to address financial and management issues and set an election date for council president.

But Chartier – supported by council finance minister and fellow governor David Chartrand of the Manitoba Métis Federation – says a meeting will not be held until a court case involving the Saskatchewan organization runs its course.

"They say, 'Oh, they're trying to avoid having an assembly.' Of course we're trying to have an assembly," Chartrand said.

"We can't legally, financially put us at such a risk to have one when we know there's outstanding legal issues in Saskatchewan. We can't. It just does not make sense."

All of this has raised tensions among board members.

"We have tried, as the board of governors – four, I'll say four of the board of governors – we have tried to address this," said Audrey Poitras, president of the Métis Nation of Alberta.

She and three other board members – Gary Lipinski of the Métis Nation of Ontario, Robert Doucette of Métis Nation Saskatchewan and Bruce Dumont of Métis Nation British Columbia – have been asking Chartier for months to call a meeting.

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Their letters and e-mails prompted sharp rebukes from Chartier and Chartrand.

The board has not met since last June, Poitras said. A planned December meeting was called off.

"As we've found out, the only person that feels he can call a meeting is President Chartier – even though our bylaws clearly say that if any three members request a meeting, the president is to call it," Poitras said.

That has thrown Chartier's presidency into limbo in the minds of Poitras and some of her counterparts.

The council's bylaws say elections are supposed to be held between the second and third year of the president's term. Chartier last won re-election in December, 2010, meaning his term was set to expire at the end of last year.

But only the board of governors can set the date of the presidential vote – something they cannot do unless they all meet. So until an election date is set, Chartier remains president.

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Chartier says the council received a legal opinion that he should remain in office until the situation in Saskatchewan is sorted out.

"I should note that in 2007, external events, again in Saskatchewan, forced a delay in the MNC Assembly," he said in a written statement.

"The same governing member presidents attempted to remove me on the grounds that my term had expired, which led to costly court action and a major disruption of the MNC.

"A court ruled that the leadership issue was to be resolved through an election which I won."

Other board members disagree.

"Well, that's his opinion," said Poitras. "I know there's some of the board of governors who refuse to call him president any longer."

One of them is Dumont: "I'm not going to call him president, because his term has finished."

Poitras and other provincial Métis leaders say they are now going public with their concerns so they don't become associated with the findings of an investigation of the council's management and finances.

The Canadian Press recently reported never-before-released details of an audit of the council by the Aboriginal Affairs Department. Some of those details included questionable contracts and apparent conflicts of interest.

A summary of the department's findings, obtained under access-to-information legislation, offered a glimpse of what was happening behind-the-scenes before new measures were introduced to help make the council more transparent and accountable.

Poitras stressed that neither she nor the other provincial leaders knew about the issues flagged by Aboriginal Affairs.

But Chartier says the four board members knew of the allegations when they approved the council's audited financial statements in the summer of 2012.

Chartrand says politics are at play.

"This is about the election. They're using this as a plot," he said.

"Someone here is running for president against Clement and they're trying to do anything that they can to hurt his name and his reputation so they can try to convince people that there's massive problems at the MNC, which there's none."

The dispute comes at a pivotal time for the Métis. A Federal Court ruling last year brought Métis and non-status Indians into the ranks of people considered "Indians" under the Constitution.

The Conservative government is now appealing that decision, which – if left to stand – would vastly expand Ottawa's responsibilities for aboriginal peoples.

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