Undermined Identity and Forgotten Communities
by Denis Gagnon
The Métis are an Indigenous people. They are the descendants of communities originating from the unions between Indigenous women and Euro-Canadian men in the context of the fur trade. Close to 400,000 people in Canada identify as Métis today, but to qualify for collective Indigenous rights, their community must have existed before the federal government took control of their territory. This date varies across provinces, from 1670 in the Maritimes to 1912 in British Columbia, and it is their very original occupation of the territory as a “first people” that makes the Métis an Indigenous people. Neither “Indian” nor “White”, neither an “in-between” nor a quantifiable mix of Indian and White, they form a distinct people comprising several nations and communities. Violently excluded from the founding process of Canada in the late 19th century, they have been branded traitors to the nation in schoolbooks and relegated to the silences of history.
Métis communities emerged in Acadia and New France as early as the 17th century. As the fur trade moved farther west, communities sprang up close to trading posts around the Great Lakes, in western and northwestern Canada (referred to as French-Indians and soon forgotten), along the Mississippi River, in the American Midwest, and on the Pacific coast of Oregon. Of these many communities, history retained only that of the Red River Métis, who specialized in bison hunting for the production of pemmican. Those Métis, most of them originally from the St. Lawrence Valley, established themselves at the beginning of the 19th century at Pembina in what is now North Dakota, and in present-day Manitoba at White-Horse Prairie, then at Saint-Boniface, Saint-Vital and Saint-Norbert. In 1869 and 1870, led by Louis Riel, they created the province of Manitoba in order to protect their lands and govern that part of Rupert’s Land that was now opened to colonization. These Francophone Catholic Métis, farmers, entrepreneurs and tradesmen, ran up against the colonial objectives of Ontarian Orangemen who were starting to settle in Winnipeg and paid no heed to the Métis presence on the territory.
The Métis were made into enemies and defeated during the Red River Rebellion, and the 1870 Manitoba Act, which was supposed to give them lands, was not respected. The climate of terror during the months and years following the rebellion forced many Métis families to flee the province and establish themselves in Saskatchewan, where the same scenario unfolded in 1885. Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont then led another uprising in an attempt to protect the Métis’ lands. As the American army had done with the Sioux in the United States, the Canadian army used the first machine guns, called Gatling guns, against which the Métis had no chance. After the Métis victory at Tourond’s Coulée (Fish Creek), the battle of Batoche was a disaster and the Métis accused the clergy of having betrayed them. Dumont fled to the United States, where he was hired by Buffalo Bill as a sharpshooter in his travelling show, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West; Riel was hanged for high treason in Regina in 1885.
The federal government then enacted policies to assimilate the Métis into the First Nations or the Euro-Canadian population. It is said that Prime Minister Macdonald declared, “If they are savages, they will go with the tribes; if they are Métis, they are whites.” With a few Numbered Treaties, the government thought it had solved the Métis issue once and for all, but it failed to take into account the resilience of a people proud of its origins and of its history of resistance to racist colonial policies.
The rebirth of an undermined identity
Everywhere in Canada, the Métis were victims of racism and discrimination, partly because of the negative perception of mixed unions, but mostly because of the “Red River and North-West Rebellions,” as they are called in the official History. The Métis lay low for almost a century; in the late 1960s they started to reclaim their Indigenous rights. In 1970 in Quebec, they founded the Laurentian Alliance of Metis and Non-Status Indians (now the Native Alliance of Quebec). The Constitution Act of 1982 recognized them as Indigenous people, but they were not granted any of the collective rights set out in the Act. In 1983, the Métis of the West created the Métis National Council (MNC), a collective of the provincial organizations of Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. However, their definition of Métis, which was based on an ancestral linkage to the Red River territory, was not unanimously accepted, notably by the Métis of the non-western provinces and territories.
In 2003, the Supreme Court’s Powley decision acknowledged the existence of a historical Métis community holding Indigenous rights in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. As a result of the judgement, some 40 communities across Canada claimed Métis status, but so far, all their attempts before the courts have failed. Yet these resilient communities continue to identify as Métis despite repeated refusals to have their identity recognized.
A difficult identity to define
We can identify four groups of Métis in Canada: 1) 5 nations represented by the Métis National Council; 2) 20 communities of mixed-ancestry that were the subject of inquiries by the Department of Justice Canada in 2004; 3) 40 communities that are not recognized, some of which are claiming their status before the courts; and 4) 7 associations of non-status Indians who identify as Métis in order to be granted Indigenous rights.
We can also distinguish four rival histories/narratives, some of which are fiercely opposed. The first is the one of the Métis of western Canada, which claims that the descendants of the Red River Métis are the only true Métis. According to the second, several other Métis communities emerged in the Maritimes, in the St. Lawrence Valley and around the Great Lakes. The third is about the communities whose founding members travelled up the Red River and settled in the Northwest Territories, northern Alberta, and part of British Columbia and Oregon. Finally, the fourth argues that the area around Lanaudière, Terrebonne, and Saint-Gabriel-de-Brandon in Quebec is the birthplace of the Métis of the West, and that these Métis and the ones from Red River are the only true Métis in Canada. These conflicting histories, which these groups would like to formalize, reflect the particular interests of people who identify as Métis.
Today, the definition of the status and rights of Métis and non-status Indians is at the heart of the reconciliation process between Canada and its Indigenous peoples, and the complex and ongoing process of identity definition reveals the diversity of Métis communities and demonstrates their irrepressible vitality.*
Denis Gagnon is a professor of anthropology at the Université de Saint-Boniface. He is the lead researcher on the study “Le statut de Métis au Canada : enjeux sociaux et agencéité” (2013–18) funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), and he held the Canada Research Chair on Métis Identity from 2004 to 2014. His areas of research are Métis identity, studies on Canadian and international Métis, Indigenous religions, ontology, and power relations. He has edited two multi-author books: Histoires et identités métisses : Hommage à Gabriel Dumont / Métis Histories and Identities: A Tribute to Gabriel Dumont (2009) and L’identité métisse en question : Stratégies identitaires et dynamismes culturels (2012). In 2014, he edited a special issue of the periodical Anthropologie et sociétés, “Le Métis comme catégorie sociale : revendications, agencéité et enjeux politiques.” His key research contributions have been in expanding and developing the field of Métis studies in anthropology, and encouraging students and researchers to investigate identity issues in Métis communities in Canada, the United States, France, Belgium, Japan, La Réunion, French Polynesia, Mexico, Brazil, Madagascar and Russia. His work has raised awareness of communities formerly overlooked by researchers. In 2012, he appeared as an expert witness before the Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples in the context of its discussion of the legal and political recognition of Métis identity and rights in Canada. Since 2004 he has advised some 60 student researchers, including several post-doctoral candidates; written 11 book chapters and 12 scientific articles; organized a symposium and four international workshops; and given more than 30 lectures in Canada, France, Mexico and Japan.
. From the Cree pimekan (fat), pemmican was the daily fare of the voyageurs. It is a concentrated and nutritious food made of a mixture of bison (fat and powdered jerky) and Saskatoon berries (Amelanchier alnifolia). To maintain its monopoly of this trade, the Hudson’s Bay Company led the so-called Pemmican Wars from 1814 to 1845, which gave rise to Métis nationalism.
. The Orange Order is a Protestant fraternal organization founded in Ireland in 1795. It celebrates the victory of the English king William of Orange over the Irish Catholics under King James II at the Boyne River (the Battle of the Boyne) in 1690. The Order was established in Canada in 1830, first in Ontario and then in the West. In the 1880s, with total disregard for the Métis, the Orangemen renamed the Rivière-aux-Ilets-de-Bois the Boyne River.
. R. v. Daniels, 2013 FC 6, T-2172-99, par. 413.