Métis Legal Traditions and Reconciliation

Elder Anne Carrière Acco provides the following summary of the teachings of the Métis-Cree Community of Cumberland House, Saskatchewan, in The Origins of Métis Customary Law With a Discussion of Métis Legal Traditions, 17:

  • The law is to be understood by means of education at the community level. This is the means by which all community members stay within the circle of well-being. Minoh nani mohwin.


  • The law must have the human resources and materials to maintain the state of well-being. A community cannot just speak about what it can do to maintain order; it must have the will, the means and the support of the human resources within the community. Ekota pohko ka isi ka pohieyan.


  • The law must have the mechanisms in place for those who seek justice, retribution for lost or stolen articles, or restitution of the same articles. A forum must have the protocols in place to call on the learned, the keepers of the wisdom concerning every aspect of life. This provides the civil order that has to be maintained. The knowledgeable people, Ahneegay-kaashigakick” come to give of their expertise. Then within the community forum the people agree by consensus what the advice means in terms of community and family action. Kawaskimohn is followed by Kawaskimohin.


  • Violence will happen in communities. However, each incident has to be dealt with immediately. The level of violence escalates or disappears according to what is tolerated in the community. Hence violence is not an autonomous act, it can hurt the entire community if they lose their collective sense of well-being. Ehkota kani mohnaniwan.[1]

Métis Legal Traditions Identified in the TRC: Final Report


TRC Final Report: Vol. 6 – Reconciliation[2]  

Métis peoples also have legal traditions that could be applied to facilitate reconciliation. Métis laws are both oral and written. The historic laws of St. Laurent, for example, were very extensive. Although the laws of the buffalo hunt were less explicit, they still provide great detail about the consequences of violating law. Métis laws are also contemporary and likewise concern themselves with reconciliation.

Writing about the origins of Métis customary law, scholars Lawrence J. Barkwell and Amanda Rozyk and Métis Elder Anne Carriere Acco say that historically “Metis government was based in consensus democracy ... Everyone had a part in making the laws ... [Today] an objective of Metis justice is the revival and recognition of traditional non-adversarial dispute resolution. This includes the use of Elders as advisors and mediators." (pp. 63).


In the broader context of reconciliation, Métis law, like other Indigenous legal traditions, can also inform a wide range of Aboriginal-Crown alternative dispute-resolution and negotiation processes involving Treaty and Aboriginal rights, land claims, and resource-use conflicts.

Elmer Ghostkeeper, a Métis Elder and past president of the Federation of Métis Settlements in Alberta, points out that Indigenous approaches to resolving conflicts and establishing mutually respectful relationships are frequently ignored by government representatives. He explains that for him the concept of “traditional knowledge” is problematic “because it suggests [something] old and aging. As [Métis] people we are just as contemporary and creative as others. We do have old traditions, but we also have current practices that form part of our wisdom.” He says that the term “Aboriginal wisdom” more accurately describes “the body of information, rules, beliefs, values, behavioural and learning experiences which made existence possible and meaningful for the Métis.”

Elder Ghostkeeper explains that “our [Métis] wisdom sits in our personal experience and the experience of others. It is both old and current knowledge primarily passed on through oral histories and stories that contain many teachings and lessons in many forms.” (pp. 65).


Métis Legal Principles through Storytelling


TRC Final Report: Vol. 6 – Reconciliation[3]  

Storytelling is an important aspect of Métis legal traditions.

“Social control begins at the family level, and is then transferred to the community or national level.... Metis children are taught about the consequences of behaviour through the teachings of their Grandmothers and traditional stories.... These stories are instructive as to accepted community standards as well as the natural, supernatural and cultural sanctions that flow from breaches of the standards and principles.”

To illustrate, renowned Métis lawyer Jean Teillet tells a story of a young girl who was bitten by a dog in a Métis community. After the young girl was injured, the dog was picked up by a nurse and a representative of the Ministry of Natural Resources.

Thinking they were doing the right thing, but violating community customs, the two bagged the dog after it was killed and put him in the community freezer. These actions violated Métis law, which required the application of Métis principles to restore balance.

First, the Elders had many questions that they asked those involved. They wondered why the little girl was out by herself, why the dog was loose, why the nurse or Natural Resources officer killed the dog, and why they put the dog in the freezer (which was filled with caribou and other meat).

In deciding what should happen to reconcile people in these circumstances and restore harmony after this event, the Elders in this case were not interested in taking any punitive measures. They made sure that the little girl was okay. They required compensation be made to the person whose dog was killed. They also asked those responsible for putting the dog in the community freezer to restock it because the caribou and other meat had been contaminated by the dead dog as a result of their actions.

This process demonstrates that Métis law is relevant for working towards reconciliation in a community context. The principles they followed could also be applied on a broader basis to address issues arising from harms caused by the residential schools. (pp. 63-64). 





[1] Barkwell, Lawrence J., Carrière Acco, Anne, and Rozyk, Amanda. The Origins of Métis Customary Law With a Discussion of Métis Legal Traditions. Winnipeg: Louis Riel Institute, 2007. 17. [references omitted]

[2] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. “Vol 6: Reconciliation,” In, The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015. 63, 65. [references omitted]

[3] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. “Vol 6: Reconciliation,” In, The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015. 63-64. [references omitted]