The mythology of Métissage: Settler moves to innocence

In 2009, John Ralston Saul tried to whip together a cohesive Canadian identity in A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada, using the Métis as a synecdoche for ‘a unique people’ (i.e. Canadians). He argued that Canadian culture was less a result of English and French Enlightenment values, and more of a result of interactions between English and French newcomers and First Nations. To call this a rosy reading of history is an understatement as vast as the Mariana Trench. The goal of this approach is to encourage Canadians to “learn who they truly are” via reconnecting with their Indigenous roots. Real, or very much imagined.

More perplexing, to those of us who are actually Métis, was the choice to discuss Canada as a “Métis Nation”. Why us? Why the Métis, as opposed to say, the Cree, or the Mohawk, or the Inuit? Why is our nation so attractive to those seeking an Indigenous identity? I’ve previously discussed some of the issues with defining Métis identity, but it basically boils down to the fact that for many people, Métis = mixed. After all, that’s what the French word means, and that is almost exclusively how we are discussed in the mainstream; as a hybrid people formed from the unions between European men and First Nations women. Just us. Apparently we’re the only ones who married out, interbred, mixed. So anyone with a single Indigenous ancestor 300 years ago is mixed, thus Métis.

I hope it is obvious that this claim is ridiculous. Unfortunately, this is precisely the kind of mythology discussed by E. Tuck and K.W. Yang as a “move to innocence”, in their must read piece Decolonization is Not a Metaphor:

In this move to innocence, settlers locate or invent a long-lost ancestor who is rumored to have had “Indian blood,” and they use this claim to mark themselves as blameless in the attempted eradications of Indigenous peoples…
…[it] is a settler move to innocence because it is an attempt to deflect a settler identity, while continuing to enjoy settler privilege and occupying stolen land.

While there are certainly people claiming a First Nations identity based on blood myths (long-lost or imagined ancestors), it tends to be a less common phenomenon in Canada than is perhaps the case in the United States. Part of that, at least where I come from, is a deep-rooted racism against Indigenous peoples that makes being Indigenous in no way an enviable or sought-out identity.

Since moving to eastern Canada however, I have seen that deep-rooted racism expressed in forms that encourage stereotypes of noble savagery, and claiming Indigenous identity is much more hip, and edgy. Perhaps it is a rural versus urban phenomenon?  In any case it is still difficult to claim one is Mohawk, or Mi’gmaq or Cree without a person from one of those First Nations asking pointed questions about relatives and community. Much easier to avoid a fuss and simply claim that any tiny scrap of Indigenous blood (again real or imagined) makes one “Métis”.  In this way, our nation becomes a bin for all those who are “not otherwise defined”.

The problem with this is of course the fact that many of the people claiming us, are not claimed BY us. Self-identification is not enough. As an Indigenous people, the Métis have the right to define our own kinships, without having anyone who wishes come along and successfully claim kinship with us. We are often accused of furthering colonial goals by speaking out about the misuse of our identity as a “catch-all” for those who otherwise find themselves without a clear Indigenous label. Oddly enough, these same accusations are rarely hurled at First Nations who also have the right to question those who self-identify as being part of their nation. Feel free to claim that having a Mohawk ancestor 300 years ago makes you Mohawk. See how far that takes you.

Recently, the mythology of Métissage has reared its head in a very aggressive way in Quebec. While the flavour is different than Saul’s claims (more maple syrup, obviously), the story is roughly the same. Some people, merely by feeling more Indigenous than French, want to identify as Métis. Unique. Not French (European), but something else. Something that belongs here. Something that does not engender guilt. Something that washes away Quebec’s history of colonialism while reinforcing Quebec’s own experiences as a colonized people.

In fact, Roy Dupuis, Carole Poliquin and Yvan Dubuc have an entire film about the Québécois-as-Métis called L’empreinte. In interviews, Dupuis has stressed that the French did not come to Quebec as conquerors, and that they were charmed by the “sexual liberation of les sauvagesses” (Indigenous women). Much like Ralston Saul, Dubuc and Poliquin claim that Quebec’s tolerance for differences (Islamophobia and a penchant for continuing to champion the use of blackface aside) consensus seeking, and love of nature all come from the mixture of cultures; European and First Nations.

All of that would be lovely to acknowledge, true or not, if it weren’t for the way in which such claims are used to claim the Québécois as Indigenous. Yes please, stop viewing Indigenous peoples as “the other”, but do not replace that with “we are all Indigenous”.

“Si les Français sont nos cousins, les Amérindiens sont nos frères.” says Dupuis (if the French are our cousins, the Indians are our brothers).

Quels seraient les avantages de cette redéfinition? Énormes, croient-ils. « Comme le dit Denys Delâge dans le film, reconnaître cet héritage voudrait dire que notre histoire n’a pas commencé avec l’arrivée de Champlain, mais il y a 12 000 ans, dit Roy Dupuis.

(What would advantages of such a redefinition be? They believe them to be enormous. “As Denys Delâge said in the film, recognizing this heritage means our history did not begin with the arrival of Champlain, but rather is 12,000 years old!” says Roy Dupuis.)

Others are not so quick to jump on the bandwagon of imagined Québécois Indigeneity. Gérard Bouchard points out the obvious; that Indigenous communities in Quebec are in general far removed from where the Québécois live/lived, that the Roman Catholic Church always discouraged mixed unions with First Nations, and that First Nations genes represent a mere 1% of the Quebec genetic makeup.

And yet, the myth of Métissage holds a powerful sway. As Dupuis says in this trailer:

“When I arrived in America, I was French, but before long, I no longer lived nor thought like a Frenchman … I was Canadian, from the Iroquois name Kanata. My tribe has given itself other names since — French Canadian, then Québécois …”

In another interview, Dupuis was asked, “Are you more French or Indian?” To which he replied, “Indian”.

Don’t get me wrong. Dupuis is just one more manifestation of a burning desire to claim Indigeneity, and is hardly the only person involved in furthering such claims. However, this move to innocence is far from harmless. A great deal of time, effort and research is being put into claiming Indigeneity via very strained genealogical ties (for example, claiming a Mi’kmaq Métis ancestor from 1684) when that effort could much better be extended in developing healthy relationships with existing Indigenous communities both in Quebec, and throughout Canada.

“Becoming the Native” is ongoing colonialism and erasure of Indigenous peoples, and the fact that this is being done more and more through the lens of Métissage is of particular concern to Métis people. We are being used as a wedge to undermine Indigenous rights and existence (including our own!). It is no wonder then that we are under attack by “scholars” and “historians” who insist that we cannot define who is Métis; that we must make room for communities who wish to self-identify as Métis.

The stakes are high. If enough people attain “Métishood”, it is not inconceivable that the population of “Métis” could outnumber First Nations and Inuit combined, and make us a driving political force when it comes to Indigenous issues. Of course, the agenda would be driven by Settler, not Indigenous needs as we too would become a minority within our own nation. Further, the claiming of Indigeneity by Settler populations means circumventing any need to engage in decolonization.

So expect this topic to pop up again, because one thing is clear: Canadian (or Quebec) myth-making is far from over.

Want to learn more? Darryl Leroux unpacks this myth-making very clearly here: https://soundcloud.com/indigenousstudiesusask/native-studies-speakers-series-darryl-leroux-now-i-am-metis-how-white-people-become-indigenous

I also put together a storify of my live tweets as I listened to the above talk: https://storify.com/apihtawikosisan/now-i-am-metis-how-white-people-become-indigenous

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