What my children learn about themselves in school

In Quebec, I’ve come to realise, “Métis” still means “half-breed” to most.

If you identify as Métis, people will ask which of your parents is an Indian.

At first I used to go into this long explanation about the genesis of the Métis, and how the founders of my community were Mohawk from Kahnawake which is just outside of Montreal.  I would tell them how these Mohawk had intermarried with Europeans and then with Cree women when they arrived at Lac Ste. Anne and the surrounding areas.  I’d tell them a little about Louis Riel and the fur trade and about why I speak Cree and not Michif, and how the Métis out east are culturally different than those of us from out west.  I’d explain how the capricious method of ‘taking Treaty’ or ‘taking Scrip’ meant that some people who are First Nations are now considered Métis while others from the same family are on a Band roll.

After all this, however, I’d invariably be asked…”So, is your mom Indian then?”  To which I’d answer…”No.  She’s Métis”, and leave it at that, with the confusion written all over their faces.

You see, I am used to Alberta, where there is very little confusion about the Métis, at least among native people.  I didn’t have to explain myself back home, because people just knew. When I moved to Montreal, I sort of considered it this homecoming in a way, to the lands of my ancestors before they picked up and dragged their relations to the shores of our sacred lake.  Instead, I realise that Quebec is like the flower and the seeds have traveled so far that the flower does not recognise them anymore.

I can live with that.  When I can, I explain.  When I am tired, I do not.  This is life, particularly when you are not one of the ‘average’.

What does bother me, however, is what my children are learning about themselves in school.  Nothing at all.

Quebec has 11 distinct aboriginal peoples: the Cree, Naskapi, Mi’maq, Malicite, Abenaki, Anishnaabe, Atikamekw, Innu, Wendat, Mohawk, and Inuit.  Yet when my children are taught about native peoples in Quebec, they are always portrayed as Iroquois. I suppose at least I can be thankful that they aren’t using some Plains Cree image this far away from Plains Cree territory…

I’ve quizzed a few people to see if they could name even five of the 11 nations here in Quebec.  None have managed so far.

When my daughter asked her teacher to say “First Nations” instead of “Indian”, she was scolded.  The daughter of my beloved has been learning about “Les Amerindiens”… colouring in pretty pictures of men and women in traditional dress, with tipis and long houses side by side.  Again…small blessings, there were no totem poles in the mix.  This daughter also informed me that she had been given a totem.  A squirrel, unless I misremember.

*facepalm*

My children are not represented in their learning at school.  Native children here are not really a part of the curriculum.  Outdated representations of our peoples are, and that is about it.  This is how I grew up, never seeing myself in the history books or in contemporary settings. At least in Alberta, this has been changing…it does not appear that Quebec has caught up yet.

My daughters are giving presentations today in class on their Métis culture.  I asked to be allowed to smudge in the class, but this request was denied.  That really bothered me for a while, but I let it go.  My girls took sage and sweetgrass, and will show their class how we smudge.  They will bring their sashes, which in these parts is associated with the Bonhomme de Neige of the winter carnival.  They will show the other children their baby moccasins, and they will speak a bit of Cree.  They will pass around Cree language books by Freda Ahenakew.  They will show the other children examples of our beading, and then will discuss whatever it is they want to share of their culture.

And all of this may be the only time their culture is ever introduced into the school.

No wonder native people feel alienated still.  No wonder people ask me which of my parents is “an Indian”.

I find we are well represented in museums.  I am thankful for this at least, because our contemporary artists and leaders are also mentioned there, rather than consigning our culture to the dustbin of history and pre-history.  Nonetheless, it isn’t enough.

I feel like I walk in a different world than most Canadians.  I myself am still learning our history.  I am learning about the peoples here out east and their own struggles and histories.  Yet what I do know of the history of my own community and the history of other aboriginal communities is so far beyond the average understanding that I cannot help but marvel at the chasm between us.

Inextricably linked with my own history is the history of this country.  That at least should be something we as Canadians care about.

I am going to go watch my daughters present snippets of their culture to  children and adults who have likely never been exposed to even that before.  I hope my children will be proud.  I am not sure how I am going to feel.

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Categories: Alienation, Culture, Half-breed, Métis, Plains Cree, Representation of natives

7 Responses to What my children learn about themselves in school


  1. Alex says:

    This vividly brings to mind Gr.4’s unit on plains cree, where they got in my classmate’s father to speak about his experiences as a doctor on a reserve somewhere in the prairies – i remember sitting beside his son, fuming, as he called us barbaric warlike people and complained about “Indian time.” Of course, the school would have never asked any of us to come in to talk about what it was actually like being Cree – my grandmother was the 1st status woman allowed to serve in the army, which she was very proud of, but had suffered much racism within the army as well as in the residential school system and in her life afterwards – I guess no one wants to hear about that? We’re still not allowed to be authorities on our own experience.

  2. Gersande says:

    I stumbled upon your wordpress and will be keeping an eye on it. My mother (a white-not quite so white-nothing-is-really-clear jumble of South American and Italian) used to do a lot of fundraising and awareness campaigns and activism for First Nation’s issues when I was a kid, and I remember learning a lot more than what my peers knew on issues such as the really horrible rehabilitation schools and the 1990 Oka Crisis.
    Everything your children are learning really is a throwback to what I learned in school (in the early 90s!) and it saddens me to hear that things have yet to change.

    • I do think there is a regional difference in what children are leaning about aboriginal peoples. While there is more racism in the prairies for example, there is also a higher proportion of aboriginal peoples there, involved in developing curriculum and sharing their culture in the schools. Here in Quebec, there are about as many aboriginal people in pure numbers, but the percentage of the total population is much lower, and the communities are further away from the main urban centres here. I think this has an impact, but it saddens me as well.

      Something to work on!

  3. Nohtawiy says:

    I can’t find accurate information anywhere so I’m hoping you can lead me in the right direction.

    In Cree culture, who chooses a child’s totem? Is it a special ceremony that can only being given by a specific person, or do Elders in the family assist with the selection?

    I’ve also read that no one person helps, but the spirit itself makes it known.

    There is do much mixed mysticism info on the web that takes away from the First Nations culture I am trying to learn and follow.

  4. Pingback: (White) Settler Futurity with Bloody Hands on Stolen Land | unsettling.as.existence

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