One day back in elementary school, Jean Teillet’s teacher tried to give her class the standard 1960s textbook line that Métis leader Louis Riel was a traitor to his country. The nine-year-old Teillet – who happens to be his great-grandniece – would have none of it. She told the teacher in no uncertain terms what she thought of her history lesson on Riel, who led the Red River Rebellion in 1869 and the Northwest Rebellion in 1885 to demand federal recognition of Métis rights. And she promptly got kicked out of class.
“My teacher said that Riel was some kind of madman, and she presented a version of history that was absolutely disgusting. I never have been shy and I don’t know what I said to her, but it probably wasn’t very nice,” Teillet says, laughing at her young, feisty self.
Four decades later, Teillet is still taking on anyone who denigrates Riel or denies the rights of the Métis. But these days, she does it as a prominent Aboriginal rights lawyer who has a more sophisticated approach to political disputes. While much of her practice at the Vancouver- and Toronto-based firm of Pape & Salter involves First Nations people, Teillet maintains a special interest in Métis issues. Since graduating from the Faculty of Law in 1994, she has worked tirelessly to assert the Métis people’s constitutionally entrenched Aboriginal rights, using a mix of litigation and negotiation. Last spring, she received the Law Society of Upper Canada’s first Lincoln Alexander Award – created in honour of Ontario’s former lieutenant-governor – both for her legal successes and for her contributions to the Aboriginal community as a mentor and teacher.
Teillet’s highest-profile case, which is ongoing, involves her defence of Steve and Roddy Powley, two Métis men charged with unlawfully hunting moose in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., in 1993. In 2001, the Court of Appeal for Ontario not only upheld two lower court rulings confirming the Powleys’ Aboriginal harvesting rights, but made the strongest legal statement to date about Métis constitutional rights in general and the government’s role in recognizing and affirming these rights.
The Ontario government is appealing that decision, so Teillet expects to be defending the Powleys again in the Supreme Court early this year. “We could not be in a better position to go to the Supreme Court,” she says. “We won three really beautiful judgments in all the courts below.” Beyond the harvesting rights issue, she hopes to see the court set out a framework for Métis rights – which would be a great boon to her work and a great victory for her people. “We cannot resolve all the Métis issues on the first case, but we can get a good start,” she says.
Teillet grew up in St. Vital, Man., where Riel spent part of his childhood. Much of her large extended family lived nearby, and political discussion and activity were her family’s lifeblood. She can’t remember a time when she wasn’t aware of, and proud of, her heritage. “I think it was just part of my breathing,” she says. “I grew up thinking that you were Catholic, Métis and Liberal. I didn’t know you had choices in these things.”
Teillet did, however, add one more piece to this tripartite identity: modern dancer. “I wanted to dance since I was about three – that’s all I wanted to do,” she says. At the end of high school, she was torn between taking a degree in dance and going to law school; she eventually opted for dance with the idea that law could come later. “I basically decided that you can be a lawyer when you’re 40 but you can’t be a dancer when you’re 40.”
She danced professionally in Toronto, eventually combining performing with writing, teaching, choreography, directing and even some visual art. As she approached 40, she started referring to her dancing as “walking with attitude,” because her body wasn’t as co-operative as it had been in her 20s.
The combination of a family legacy and an idea put on hold led Teillet to apply to U of T’s Faculty of Law. She started in 1991 after being out of school for 15 years, and she doesn’t pretend it was easy. “The first year of law school I felt as if my brain was a rusty tap – it was really hard to get it opened up and moving, and all that came out at first was rusty water,” she says. But once the clear water started flowing, she was in her element and soon shared her success by mentoring other Aboriginal law students.
After graduating, Teillet helped create the Métis Nation of Ontario, an organization that focuses on “nation building” in such areas as economic development and education. The lack of recognition of Métis rights is an endemic problem, not just with governments but with ordinary Canadians, she says. “I think most people think that the Métis died in 1885 when Riel was hanged…. Somehow a whole people died on the gallows with one man.”
Teillet believes Riel ultimately surrendered and shifted the Northwest Rebellion from the field to the courtroom to gain a legitimate forum where he could raise his deep concerns about the Métis being Canada’s forgotten people. But his execution cut off the dialogue, leaving these issues unresolved. “That’s what Riel left undone,” she says. And that’s what she hopes to finish.
Megan Easton is a freelance writer.