Two mayoral candidates vying to become Winnipeg’s second Indigenous mayor

Winnipeg voters could elect a second Indigenous mayor — Kevin Klein who identifies as Métis and Robert-Falcon Ouellette who identifies as Métis and Cree — are both running in the 11-person mayoral race. 

Kevin Klein is a member of Painted Feather Woodland Métis, a group out of Bancroft, Ont., that is not recognized by the Métis Nation of Ontario or the Manitoba Métis Federation. 

Klein, currently a city councillor who says he identified as Métis before entering politics, said he’s not wearing his membership to this group “as a badge” and he has not received any benefits from being a member of the Painted Feather Woodland Métis. 

He said as a child, he attended some Indigenous events, but he did not understand the connection. 

He sought membership after his uncle, already a member of Painted Feather, told him he is Métis while they were looking through pictures of relatives around six to 10 years ago.

A person in a suit stands in a group of people wearing sashes.
Kevin Klein posted this photo on his Twitter account on Aug. 2, 2022, with the caption: ‘Being a proud Métis Canadian I wanted to make my first @Folklorama stop the Métis pavilion, and it was awesome. Good food, good people, good crafts, and a great show. Including the winners of @CanGotTalent from this year.’ (Twitter.com/KevinKleinwpg)

“I feel that the family connection is there. I don’t think it’s any different than a lot of people that self-identify,” Klein said.

For Klein, whose mother was murdered by her partner in 1991 when he was in his mid-20s, the reason for getting a membership was to maintain a connection to her. 

“It’s about family. So it’s not about identifying as you’re with a certain nation and stuff. I’m Canadian, you know, that’s why it says Canadian Métis. So I don’t really get into the politics of organizations,” Klein said in an interview. 

A combination of two portraits showing a woman, and a woman with a child.
Kevin Klein’s mother Joanne was killed by her partner when Klein was in his mid-20s. (kevinklein.ca)

“When you identify as Métis or you identify as Italian … that’s Canada, right?” said Klein. “Canada has been a lot of nations, a lot of different cultures that have come together … on Canadian soil, but as the homeland of Indigenous people.”

Klein said he would like to spend more time researching his lineage to find out where his maternal ancestors come from. 

After it was pointed out that some academics and Métis governments do not accept Painted Feather’s criterion for membership which simply requires having a single “aboriginal” ancestor, Klein responded in an emailed statement.

“I am not aware of the items raised by CBC News in the email received regarding the Painted Feather Woodland Métis,” wrote Klein. 

Darren O’Toole, an associate professor at the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa, said a card from a group like Painted Feather does not necessarily make a person Métis. 

“It doesn’t prove for me that you’re a member of the Métis people or Nation, but it doesn’t prove that you’re not, either,” said O’Toole, who is a citizen of the Manitoba Métis Federation.

Klein is running for mayor in a city with more than 55,000 Métis and 102,000 Indigenous residents.

O’Toole says a Métis candidate could potentially leverage a block of voters. 

“There’s an important enough Métis population in cities like Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, etc., that that could actually make a difference between someone getting elected or not,” O’Toole said. 

The Métis Nation of Ontario (MNO), the only recognized Métis government that represents communities and citizens with constitutionally protected rights in Ontario, disavows any links to the Painted Feather group.

“We have no affiliation with the Painted Feather Woodland Métis,” MNO president Margaret Froh said in a recorded audio statement. 

Her government always welcomes people who want to return to their Métis community and invites them to apply for citizenship, she said.

“To be clear, simply having an Indigenous ancestor does not make you Métis,” Froh said.

In an emailed statement, Klein said “this matter of my heritage is personal, as it is to all Canadians. My heritage assessment has been to solely connect to my mother (who was taken from me far too early) and her heritage. It is also to honour and connect to her and her family.”

Klein did not respond to a question asking him if he would submit an application to a recognized Métis government.

The director of the Painted Feather Woodland Métis — and its incorporated company, called the Ontario Métis Family Records Center Inc. — did not agree to an interview and directed CBC News to its website for any questions about the membership process. 

The Ontario Métis Family Records Center’s corporate records show a single person, Lynn Haines, serves as director, president and secretary, and its registered office is listed as a single family home according to property records. 

The Painted Feather Woodland Métis’s website says most definitions of what it means to be Métis are “unduly restrictive and unfair.” The group’s definition of who is Métis is open to “anyone with an Aboriginal ancestor,” no matter where they were from or how far the family connection dates back. 

The group says it will work with applicants to confirm Métis status, saying the verification process includes checking their own records which “date back to the early 1400s.”

Membership in the group also costs applicants $57 for five years or $320 for a lifetime membership. There is a 10-day cooling-off period after purchase, which allows for a full refund. 

The for-profit group’s website touts membership as a way to get scholarships set aside for Indigenous people and potential preferential hiring. 

Painted Feather says some students have been told they do not qualify for a Métis bursary and the advice to them is: “Don’t give up, you may just be speaking to the wrong person.”

Winnipeg mayoral candidate Robert-Falcon Ouellette stands at podium to talk about the Winnipeg police budget.
Winnipeg mayoral candidate Robert-Falcon Ouellette says that he is Cree Métis, but does not have a citizenship card. (Trevor Lyons/CBC)

Cree Métis candidate Ouellette chooses not to have status card

One of Klein’s 10 mayoral opponents, Robert-Falcon Ouellette, identifies as Cree and Métis. 

He’s Cree through his grandmother Maria Ouellette, née Wuttunee, who grew up on Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan but lost her Indian status under the federal act  because she married a Métis man, James Ouellette, who traces his roots back to Batoche, the site of the 1885 Métis resistance led by Louis Riel, according to obituaries and other records. 

Older-looking photo of two people seated.
Ouellette’s paternal grandparents, Maria and James Sr., in 1963. (findagrave.com)

His grandmother’s brother, Bill Wuttunee, was Western Canada’s first status Indian lawyer. He helped create the National Indian Council, which in 1968 evolved into the National Indian Brotherhood and is now known as the Assembly of First Nations, according to his obituary

Robert-Falcon Ouellette is a member of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan and said he has a letter confirming his membership and a letter from the federal government that says he is eligible for a status card.

Aged photo of a woman standing, holding a baby, with two children at her feet.
Maria Ouellette, née Wuttunee, stands with her children Jimmy, Iris and Vivian, according to findagrave.com. Robert-Falcon Ouellette has identified Jimmy as his father. (findagrave.com)

But he chooses not to hold an Indian status card or a citizenship card with a Métis government.

“I do not believe in the Indian Act.… For a long time, actually, I refused to get my Indian status card until all Indigenous peoples could obtain their status card,” Ouellette said 

Ouellette said he had a citizenship card from the Métis Nation of Alberta when he was in his early 20s but chose not to renew it.

He said there are still too many financial and bureaucratic barriers to getting status or citizenship cards, and until those are removed, he will not get a card. 

“Identity is extremely important, and who do we allow us to define our identity? Is it the federal government? Do we use the Indian Act to deny people their access to status? So for me, it’s a question of … principle,” he said. 

Ouellette says as a Indigenous person, he walks in two worlds.

“I know what it’s like to succeed in the Western system, but I also know what it’s like to live and exist within the Indigenous world, and I participate both fully in all cultures,” Ouellette said. 

Old-looking photograph of uniformed man holding arm out, bird in hand. A crowd is behind him.
Robert-Falcon Ouellette’s grandfather, James Henry Ouellette, poses in Trafalgar Square, England. He went overseas in 1942 with Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, according to findagrave.com. (findagrave.com)

He said during his time as a member of Parliament, certain colleagues claimed Indigenous status by looking as far back as they could — 300 or 400 years — and then saying “I’m learning.”

Ouellette said claiming status could have helped some of those MPs advance their careers. 

“If people are going to, you know, do the claim of status, I think you have to ask yourself, what have you done to help the community? I think that’s extremely important. Have you been out there day after day, really trying to promote a different way of thinking about Indigenous peoples?”

Old-looking photograph of woman in cowboy hat outside in winter, hand in pockets.
Maria Wuttunee was between 12–14 years old in this photo that was taken at Red Pheasant reserve according to findagrave.com. (findagrave.com)

When asked what he has done for Indigenous people, Ouellette said that as a member of Parliament he spoke about the sex discrimination in the Indian Act. 

“I fought and worked with … senators to make sure that there were changes. The government did fight back for quite some time, but eventually they did acquiesce where they agreed to make those changes and use the parliamentary rules to win those changes,” said Ouellette.

Ouellette says he continues to attend ceremonies as much as possible, and has completed Sundance. He also currently leads the Warriors, the official drum group of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles. 

Bowman applies for MMF citizenship

Man in blue suit with big smile looking at camera.
Mayor Brian Bowman submitted his application for a Manitoba Métis Federation card in the summer of 2022. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Brian Bowman, Winnipeg’s first Métis mayor, said his family quietly continued Métis cultural traditions like jigging when he was growing up. 

He recalled spending Sunday nights at his grandparents’ place in Victoria Beach, where his family kept their Métis identity hidden within the home, out of fear of judgment. 

“They put the record player on, and you’d jig before Sunday dinner,” Bowman said.

“Or just even making bannock and things like that, which were relatively normal within [their] home, but, you know, growing up in Charleswood, wasn’t the norm.” 

Bowman said his sister and cousins have Métis citizenship from the MMF and he recently made the application.

“I actually began that process earlier this year,” Bowman said. “I didn’t hold a press conference, didn’t post it on social media. It’s a pretty personal thing.”

He says he’s been advised by the MMF that “everything is appropriate, and adequate, and it’s being processed now.”

Bowman said he always knew he was Métis, but when he was growing up, he was strongly discouraged from talking to his friends about it. 

“There’s a lot of Métis families who actively chose to not disclose it, just to protect their families,” Bowman said in an interview. 

Bowman and his broader family are now having conversations about why that was the case, he said. 

He would not speculate about whether being Métis would give a Winnipeg mayoral candidate an advantage, but he spoke about his personal experience.

“In this day and age, unfortunately, there is racism out there. I haven’t found that it’s always been a positive thing. It hasn’t always endeared people to me,” said Bowman. 

How is Métis defined?

The Métis homeland stretches across the Prairies, including Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. It also includes parts of British Columbia, the Northwest Territories and northern Ontario.

Just how far east into Ontario the boundary goes is currently under dispute by the Manitoba Métis Federation and Métis Nation of Ontario. 

One thing all Métis governments recognized by the Métis National Council agree upon is that simply having an Indigenous ancestor does not make a person Métis.

The legal test these governments use to determine who is Métis, and what rights they are promised, was laid out by the Supreme Court of Canada in the 2003 Powley decision

The SCC’s test requires that a person self-identify as Métis, has an ancestral connection to an historic Métis community and is accepted by the modern Métis community.

The Powley decision also recognized Métis people have a distinct collective identity, with unique customs and ways of life. 

O’Toole said claiming Métis status based solely on mixed heritage poses a danger to the survival of the Métis Nation. 

“They’re reducing our identity to the mere fact of mixed ancestry, which — to use a term that might seem a bit dramatic — but this is potentially contributing to ethnocide,” O’Toole said. 

“It’s a destruction of our existence as a distinct Indigenous people. It’s quite serious for the Métis people … to have us reduced to a question of a single ancestor.”

Will Goodon, the minister of housing of the Manitoba Métis Federation, says politicians need to know their heritage before saying they are Métis.

“If you’re doing it and you’re a political figure, you should do the research before you move forward,” Goodon said in an interview.

Portrait of man in beaded vest in front of a painting.
Will Goodon has been involved in Métis politics for over 20 years now. He has offered to talk to Klein about what it means to be Métis. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

Goodon said when people don’t do their due diligence and get outed as not being who they say they are, whether it’s Métis or Indigenous, they face serious repercussions. 

“I would be very careful if I was a politician trying to make my way into that realm,” Goodon said. 

Goodon has offered to sit down with Klein to explain what it means to be Métis and, like the MNO, the MMF would help him with a citizenship application, he said.

Candidates’ promises to Indigenous peoples

Klein has made promises on the campaign trail to benefit Indigenous peoples. 

He wants to introduce Indigenous economic zones and create a new position within the city’s civil service with the responsibility of promoting Indigenous economic prosperity.

The Indigenous economic development officer “will work with Indigenous leaders and entrepreneurs … to create economic opportunities and a pathway to sustainability and prosperity in Winnipeg,” Klein said at a news conference on Sept. 29.

Ouellette promises to work more closely with Indigenous governments and the federal government to ensure that First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples who need it have access to addictions treatment and all other essential healthy living support services.

Ouellette proposes immediate treatment, supervised consumption sites, prescribed pharmaceutical alternatives and ongoing support for all Winnipeggers who have substance use disorders.

Ouellette also pledges to work with Indigenous governments and the federal government to ensure that First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples living in Winnipeg have their housing needs met.

He supports the work of community group End Homelessness Winnipeg and promised the creation of more than 1,300 additional housing units within eight years.

Ouellette said he would also like for Winnipeg to become an Indigenous tourism destination.

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