Who are the Métis?

Although I wrote about the various ways Métis identity is interpreted in a post years ago, I still get asked, “who are the Métis”? In fact, I am asked this more and more frequently since the Daniels decision. It’s a live issue and since I have been drawn into providing some answers based on being Métis, I thought I’d jot them down here for ease of access.

The Métis are a post-Contact Indigenous people with roots in the historic Red River community.

That’s the “tell me in one sentence” definition I give people these days. It very rarely gets left at that, but we are constantly asked to define ourselves in a quickly digestible form, and this definition hits some important parts I’d like to explore in a little more depth.

  • A post-Contact Indigenous people? Huh?

This confuses a lot of people because there is definitely the idea that Indigenous people are defined by their existence prior to Contact with European peoples;  as though the cut-off date for Indigeneity is one day before Contact. After all, if people could become Indigenous after Contact, doesn’t that mean that Europeans could become Indigenous eventually too? (No.)

Defining “Indigenous” is another huge issue, so I’m not going to give you a breakdown of that discussion. Instead, I will give you examples of other post-Contact Indigenous peoples: the Lumbee, Comanche, Seminole and Oji-Cree.

None of these peoples simply went *poof* into existence after Contact. The huge and disruptive impact Europeans had through disease, trade goods and the importation of their perpetual internecine warfare, inevitably and  fundamentally influenced the cultures of Indigenous peoples. This is true even long before Europeans started claiming ownership of lands and jurisdiction over the lives of Indigenous peoples.

Sometimes these disruptions were so severe, they nearly decimated existing communities, and survivors were integrated into other groups, or new cultural practices arose to cope with changing conditions. Intermarriage was often a catalyst for these changes, but not the most important one, as intermarriage between First Nations has been happening for thousands of years without necessarily resulting in new peoples. For groups to become distinct, post-Contact Indigenous peoples, a distinct culture had to arise and this is certainly true of the Lumbee, Comanche, Seminole, Oji-Cree…and Métis.

  • Roots in the historic Red River community? Wait a minute…

Ah the fur trade. That’s what you’re thinking, right? How the fur trade was essential to the ethnogenesis of the Métis, and hey didn’t the fur trade begin in the east, far from the Plains and the Red River valley?

First, I want to address the “roots in the Red River” part. This does not mean you have to be from the Red River, or even directly related to Red River families. It does mean the history, language, and culture that arose in the Red River and spread out as Métis founded other communities, is what is shared.

Now, on to the fur trade!

The fur trade itself did not create the conditions through which the Métis became a people. A great many different people participated in the fur trade, and did not magically change into Métis; you’ve got various Europeans in there, many different First Nations, as well as enslaved and freed Africans from a diverse number of Indigenous African peoples. There were many multi-ethnic First Nations groupings that did not become a different people.

Often what happened was that European men, originally mostly French, intermarried with Anishinaabe, Cree or other First Nations women. These “mixed” families were encouraged by the fur trading companies because they provided kinship links to First Nations on whom the Europeans so desperately relied, at first for survival, and then for economic prosperity. Some of these people were described by the French as “métis” (literally, mixed), and later as “half-breeds” by the English. These terms were racial, not ethnic.

Being matrilocal, it was common for First Nations women to bring their husbands and children to winter with their people, which reduced the strain on the fur companies to provide provisions during those long months. The cultural milieu in these situations were First Nations-centric, as these individual European men were absorbed into their wives’ cultures, along with any children they had.

Some of these families moved between the fur trading forts, and the wives’ communities. Some eventually “broke off” to form their own communities, intermarrying with other people who had “broken off”.

Not all “breaking off” resulted in the creation of a new, Métis people, however. For example, between 1699-1765 in French settlements throughout Illinois country, such as Fort de Chartres, Kaskaskia and Prairie du Rocher, there were three ethnic communities present:

  1. French (mostly men) who were originally from Canada and Lower Louisiana;
  2. Indigenous people, including wives of the French as well as their children who were assimilated into French culture, but also including Indigenous slaves; and
  3. enslaved Africans imported from Lower Louisiana.

Despite there being mixed race children, of European and Indigenous as well as most assuredly African descent, there did not arise in any of these specific communities a “Métis” people except as métis exists in the French language to mean “mixed”. These communities continued to participate in the fur trade, but also pursued an agrarian lifestyle.

Indeed, these communities are notable for the fact that unlike many other situations where French husbands and mixed race children were integrated into Indigenous cultures, the Illinois settlements were aggressively culturally French Catholic, agrarian, and reliant on the labour of enslaved Indigenous people and Africans. As happened elsewhere, over time these communities also preferred that marriages be made with European women who were being imported into the colonies for precisely this reason. By 1732, in Kaskaskia for example, a majority of women were ethnically French, though intermarriages with Indigenous women did not end. Kinship bonds were used to ensure Indigenous women and their offspring were assimilated and “Frenchified”.

It would be very difficult for someone to claim to be Métis based on having ancestors in the Illinois settlements, like Kaskaskia. They would have to prove that somehow, despite all the strong evidence to the contrary, these communities became culturally Métis.

In contrast, the Métis had their origins in the 1800s along the edge of the Plains where they became deeply involved in buffalo hunting. Being a community effort, buffalo hunting allowed these “broken off”  to continue to provide provisions for (and participate in) the fur trade, while creating culturally distinct communities. Importantly, these people thought of themselves as culturally distinct from European and First Nations people while maintaining kinship relationships with First Nations in the same territory.

That is not to say that the Métis had no elements of First Nations or European culture. The Métis are descended from many different First Nations, Mohawk, Cree, Saulteaux, and others, as well a being descended from many different European nations, French, English, Scottish etc. When I say “culturally distinct” I do not mean “brand new, created out of thin air” but rather “with a solidified identity as a people”. As with many cultural groups, Métis tended to “marry in” with other Métis rather than returning to life with their First Nations or European forebears.

That solidified Métis identity was created around a series of events wherein the Métis needed to act as a people to defend themselves and the territory they lived on. For example, the Métis were members of the nêhiyaw-pwat or Iron Confederacy which included the Cree, Assiniboine, and Saulteaux. This was a military, economic, territorial and political alliance. Later on, the Pemmican War, the Battle of Seven Oaks, and the Riel Resistance were all events that saw the Métis continue to evolve as a people with a culturally distinct language, social and political organization.

These events did not only impact the Red River valley, and Métis people moved around a lot forming communities outside, but ultimately linked to, the Red River. These diasporic communities continue to be connected by a common culture, history and kinship. Hence the “with roots in the historic Red River community” part of the definition.

You will find Métis communities throughout the Prairies, even into British Columbia and the Northwest Territories, into Ontario as well as down into the U.S. If you are interested in the various ways of defining the boundaries of the Métis nation, Jean Teillet has a wonderful resource for you here.

But what about all the people who identify as Métis who have no roots in the Red River?

A lot of people end up using Métis to mean “mixed”. So someone with an Innu father and a non-Indigenous mother might call themselves (or be called) métis. This is a racial (and I would argue, racist) category. Then métis-as-mixed becomes conflated with Métis-as-a-specific-people, and confusion reigns.

You do not transform into someone from another culture this way. If a Japanese person and a German person had a child, they would have to negotiate which culture that child was raised in. Maybe one more than the other. Maybe both equally. What would NOT happen is that their child would automatically become ethnically Kurdish. This is exactly how bizarre it is to claim that someone of Innu and Québécois decent would become Métis.

So what is the identity of the many people claiming to be Métis, outside of the Métis homeland? There is no easy answer to that. Some of them will be non-status Indians, and culturally they should be looking at their First Nations relations for guidance.

Some know they have Indigenous roots, but aren’t really sure where they belong and feel that “Métis” is the only category open to them. As difficult a situation as that is, it is not reasonable to expect the Métis to ignore their distinct culture in order to be the “I don’t fit anywhere else” group.

Some are simply White Settlers who are attempting what Tuck and Yang call a “move to innocence“, using a real (or imagined) First Nations ancestor from hundreds of years ago in order to say they are Indigenous (Métis).

Others might even be from communities of mixed First Nations and European descendants that did form a unique and cohesive cultural identity. However, they are not us. They are not Métis, anymore than they are Cree, or Dene or Mohawk. If they are a distinct people, let them prove it and name themselves without appropriating our language, our culture, and our symbols. (Calling yourself a Captain of the Hunt in the Maritimes, a title given to those who specifically oversaw the BUFFALO HUNT, is patently ridiculous.)

But Daniels said…

A lot of people are focusing in on a quote in the Daniels decision, which itself comes from a book discussing Métis identity:

“There is no one exclusive Metis People in Canada, anymore than there is no one exclusive Indian people in Canada. The Metis of eastern Canada and northern Canada are as distinct from Red River Metis as any two peoples can be. . . . As early as 1650, a distinct Metis community developed in LeHeve [sic], Nova Scotia, separate from Acadians and Micmac Indians. All Metis are aboriginal people. All have Indian ancestry.” – R. E. Gaffney, G. P. Gould and A. J. Semple, Broken Promises: The Aboriginal Constitutional Conferences (1984).

This is not a finding of fact, no even the words of the court itself. This is merely what is referred to as obiter dictum, a thing “said in passing” that is not legally binding. The context of this quote in the decision is an extremely brief discussion of what this older piece I wrote is about: the fact that there is more than one definition of what “Métis” means, and the fact that there is not a universally accepted definition. (If you think that is strange, I would like to point out to you that there is certainly no universally accepted definition of what an “Indian” is, either.)

The court did not just acknowledge the existence of Métis communities in Nova Scotia or anywhere else. In fact the court stated it would do no such thing in its judgment.

The decision states:

“Determining whether particular individuals or communities are non‑status Indians or Métis and therefore “Indians” under s. 91(24), is a fact‑driven question to be decided on a case‑by‑case basis in the future.” (bolding mine).

There has been no blanket acceptance, and the burden of proof is still on the individual or community to prove they are are Métis or non-status.

But the court struck down the Powley test…

Nope. It didn’t.

The three point Powley test for defining who qualifies as Métis is:

1.                                 Self-identification as Métis;

2.                                 An ancestral connection to an historic Métis community; and

3.                                 Acceptance by the modern Métis community.

The court discussed whether that last bit, “acceptance by the modern Métis community” is needed when talking about whether the provinces or the federal government has legislative authority over Métis and non-status Indians.

The court determined that the federal government has legislative authority over those who self-identify as Métis and  have an ancestral connection to an historic Métis community. The third part of the test, acceptance by a contemporary Métis community, is not needed for section 91 (24).

While this is a less stringent test for the purposes of deciding who can legislate with respect to the Métis, it is by no means a slam dunk for individuals or communities identifying as Métis! It is easy to self-identity, but not so easy to prove the existence of an historic Métis community! It is going to be hard for some people to even satisfy these two points in order to say that the federal government has legislative authority over them.

There have been many cases brought before the courts which have attempted to prove the presence of an historic Métis community east of Ontario, but in every single instance the courts have found that the evidence was lacking. Judicially, there are no Métis communities in Quebec, or further east. That has not changed with this decision.

Further, the three point Powley test remains intact for the purposes of the Aboriginal rights protected by section 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982. The court had this to say:

“The criteria in Powley were developed specifically for purposes of applying s. 35 , which is about protecting historic community-held rights. That is why acceptance by the community was found to be, for purposes of who is included as Métis under s. 35 , a prerequisite to holding those rights.”

People who wish to exercise Aboriginal rights based on identifying as Métis, still must satisfy the three point Powley test: self-identification, ancestral connection to an historic Métis community, and acceptance by a modern Métis community.

By the way, communities are physical places, they are not just people with similar interests having meetings.

What Daniels will mean in terms of actual services and legislation, no one yet knows. What we do know after Daniels is when it comes time to ask for these things, we can go straight to the federal government rather than vacillate uncertainly between the provinces and the feds; and most likely they will make us fight tooth and nail every step of the way.

One last point

Personally, I don’t really care what the Supreme Court has to say on this matter. Part of being a People, is the right to determine who you are. It is not enough for people to claim us…our communities need to claim them back. I’m not talking about family squabbles here, where someone gets disowned. I’m not talking about the horrific way we have had community members scooped from us either. Those people are still us.

I am saying that simply telling yourself and others that you are Métis is not enough. I am also saying that sometimes, people need to accept that they simply are not Métis.

For those people who have been disconnected, repatriation is hard work. We have all had to do it to some extent, because our communities have been mightily disrupted. There is nothing magical in your blood that will teach your our culture and our ways of being…if you were disconnected, re-connection is a process. Approach it with humility, honesty, and respect. You will find many people willing to help you, but it can’t all be done online, it can’t all be done by researching genealogies, and it won’t happen immediately.

Share this: Google+ Reddit Print

Categories: Métis

Tags: , , ,

65 Responses to Who are the Métis?

  1. Judy says:

    Thank you, wopila! I’m one of those people who was told from a young age that we were Metis – but I’m from that group that had Native (Mik’maq and Abenaki) ancestors intermarried with early French, living in Quebec province. Our family has intermarried with Mohawk and Potawatomi through the years, and I was adopted into a Lakota family. So I’ll admit that we’ve had alot of mixture in our family cultures. AND I understand what you are saying ….. just makes me sad as I’ve been living in two worlds for a long time now and it’s a challenge. Thank you for your post about this.

    • Not being Métis does not mean you aren’t Indigenous, and people from a variety of Indigenous cultures do have to navigate a lot to determine their identity. But that is true of any people with multiple ancestries.

  2. Andrew says:

    Very helpful – thank you!

    I recently came across this 2012 analysis of self-reported Aboriginal identity in census data by AANDC (https://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1352402108618/1352402154515), which addresses the perception that Indigenous people are increasingly migrating to cities. They argue that the data is more consistent with this apparent demographic shift being driven by increasing self-identification as Métis (and, to a lesser extent, increasing self-identification as First Nations). I think this is also the case here in Montréal, where the self-reported Aboriginal population roughly doubled between 2001 and 2011.

    Of course we don’t know what meaning the census respondents attribtued to the “Métis” option they checked off, but as a Métis person who actually did migrate to a city, do you have any insight into this kind of statistical report? Is there a substantial Métis population in Montréal, or do you think most of this shift in self-identification is people with mixed ancestry conflating métis with Métis?

    Perhaps thornier questions: does AANDC have any business either presenting as fact, or calling into question, the idea that people who self-report as Métis are Métis? Should the census have more nuanced options? An unqualified statement like “The Métis population, which formed 40% of the urban Aboriginal population in 2006, exploded during this period.” seems likely to generate some misconceptions.

  3. Leigh Solland says:

    As usual, you have done a brilliant piece of work. I am a member of the Metis Nation of Alberta, but my roots are not in Western Canada, they are in New England.
    I am very pleased that the Metis people who are descended from the native Canadian beaver trappers and the European fur collectors are establishing themselves. The problem is that their claiming exclusive use of the term Metis has left a void.
    All across Canada, beginning in the early 20th century, groups of mixed race people have constituted themselves into organizations. They were known traditionally as half-breed or half-caste by the colonial authorities. As time went by, Metis emerged as a less pejorative term, and was adopted by many of these people.
    In 2002-3, when the Metis Nation of Alberta and certain other groups met under the guidance of the federal government, a definition of Metis was created. It excluded the mixed race people of the Maritimes, the Arctic, British Columbia, and most of Central Canada.
    If we are not Metis, what are we? Are we to go back to half-breed?

    • I can’t answer that question for you, only suggest you have stated part of the answer…you say your roots are in New England.

      I agree that the term itself is problematic because of the way it has been historically used and the way it often continues to be used. Some have suggested that using other names for ourselves might help ease that, but now that Métis is in the Constitution, I don’t think that is true. It will continue to be a contested term. But it’s important not to get distracted…it’s not the term really that is being contested, it is identity. Métis has been the “odds and ends” category for a great many people for a while now, and it is comfortable. Decolonization requires more, I think. It requires asking the tough questions you have here. It requires digging deeper into one’s actual roots if re-connection is a goal, and it requires that people not merely demand that their self-ID be respected, fin. The identity of the communities being claimed are key.

    • Schawa says:

      Brilliant !

      • Schawa says:

        I think ‘self-identification’ is key. I agree with Leigh above. Returning to the “half-breed” is not an option for those whom have claimed Metis identity over several generations. What has been passed down through the generations has some legitimacy in and of itself. Perhaps there is enough elasticity within the term to allow a wider Indigenous demographic to keep it.

    • I am not aware of any half-breed associations, are you? They want us to be separate and left in the position of not being able to negotiate with the government. Remember the Western fur traders were rich, while in the east people were very poor. Some of this alienation comes down to class warfare too. If you are living in the west, then you have already been able to assess the clear hatred many westerners have with the east. Sadly it has rubbed off on a lot of the metis population in the west.

      • Lol. Yeah, us privileged, rich western Métis…who were the ones targeted for violent oppression again and again, particularly after 1885. The “eastern Métis” who were “hiding in plain sight” are always so much more oppressed though. *eyeroll*

  4. Another illuminating article on the ongoing struggles and challenges facing all mixed bloods with Indigenous forebears, but more specifically the Mėtis. Born and raised in the Red River Settlement with roots going back to the beginning of, and even before, its founding, but white as white can be, with access to the privilege inherent in that, I hail from a family that ‘blended’ well. In due course, we were almost wholly assimilated. The journey back has been arduous and long and continues to this day. Questions of belonging, of the guilt associated, not only with assimilation and white privilege, but also with being, in many ways part-colonized, part- colonizer, remain concerns. Personally, I don’t particularly care about what governments may say or offer. Education, self-realization, reconnection, engagement with the issues facing Mėtis, First Nations, and Inuit peoples and participating, as I able, in the activism undertaken represent my own priorities. Your insightful, well-reasoned, and informed arguments are a source of inspiration and a much welcomed balm. Migwetch.

  5. Robert Papen says:

    Interesting piece….However, I do see a problem. You state that Métis have to have roots in the historic Red River community. At the same time, you state that one can find Métis in Ontario. The Powley case certainly proves that the Sault-Ste-Marie ‘mixed’ community is Métis, and the Métis Nation of Ontario seized that decision to imply that all the ‘mixed heritage’ people of the province are indeed Métis. Problem is, not all these people have roots in the historic Red River community. For example, the descendants of the Michilimackinak mixed heritage people, who eventually migrated to Penetanguishene, ON, did not have any roots in the Red River community, for the simple reason that the Red River community didn’t even exist at the time! Other Ontario ‘mixed heritage’ people also have had no links to the Red River Métis, for example, the Métis of Mattawa. This seems to be a “quadrature du cercle” (putting a round peg into a square hole) situation. It is also interesting to note that the Métis Nation of Ontario slavishly copies all the cultural elements of the Prairie Métis, including language. It claims that the “national” language of Ontario Métis is michif, the French-Cree mixed language. But on its web site, one can find hundreds of words and sentences in what the MNO claims is michif but which in actual fact is simply vernacular (Ontarian) French!

    • Similar discussion going on through Facebook 🙂 The Métis communities that formed outside the Red River, such as St. Alberta, Lac Ste. Anne, Smoky Lake (all in Alberta) and many others, were founded by Métis people who were themselves pushed out of the RR by Canada or who had links through kinship or political ties to the RR. So it doesn’t mean you have to live in the RR. If you come from one of these communities linked to the RR, that should be enough. There are definitely Métis communities in Ontario, particularly in southern Ontario near Lake of the Woods.

      The MNO however has certainly had issues with conflating Métis with métis-as-mixed in some of their previous membership policies. I’m not from Ontario, and I don’t know the history the evolution of MNO membership policies well, but I have seen some people with absolutely no Métis heritage (in one example a woman fully admitted she had one Mi’kmaq great grandparent) who have MNO membership and this is not helpful.

      • Thank you for this, it answered the question I had about whether all of one family had to live at Red River or if a partial family presence there was considered valid.

      • Frances says:

        Having grown up in St. Albert and being descended from Scots settling in the Lake of the Woods area — I am not at all Metis myself but have no trouble envisioning the cultural definition of the term. However — gotta point out that Lake of the Woods is considered to be northwestern Ontario, even if for those of us raised above the 49th parallel that seems counterintuitive. Southern Ontario is a long ways away.

        • Fair enough! When travelling in what was called northern Ontario, I couldn’t help but think of it as pretty darn south! But it’s how folks IN Ontario see it that matters.

  6. Gabrielle says:

    I appreciate your thoughtful analysis of the Daniels Decision, as I’ve been trying to track down commentary for my dissertation (I hope you don’t mind me citing you!). It is concerning that there is so much misinformation being shared since the decision. Any suggestions of other folks who have analyzed the judgment? I’ve been struggling to find anything (except Andersen’s Globe and Mail piece).

  7. An interesting and thoughtful statement I just came across makes a good point for those of mixed ancestry: “At some point you have to decide if you’re Native, or a Native descendant. Are you a part of a living culture or is it merely your ancestry?” (Ruth H. Hopkins, Lakota Nation)

  8. Gail Morin says:

    If the Metis community began in 1800, how then are the families Nolin, Montour, Cadotte and Salois explained? All of the Metis family heads of household were born well before 1800. It is easily proven in the scrip applications.

    • adamgaudry says:

      Only if you consider this a biological process, there were mixed marriages long before any of this, when Métis came together and started to form a political and social community, that is what happened in 1800. This social and political process is what matters for the birth of the Métis people, and it’s the story we tell about ourselves, which is also part of its importance.

  9. salvatorederosa says:

    Why stopping the tracing of ancestry to the Red River community? Why not going even before? Maybe because then you reach a point where “origin” is impossible to determine, given the mixing and inter-mixing of so many different groups, along such long time for which there are no records?

    What I am trying to say is that I find really problematic any claim of identity based on making a genealogy of the cocktail of your blood. You referred to Red River because there you find a “solidified identity”, and you admit that this solidity came out of struggles for protecting territories, implicitly suggesting the the making of a Metis identity at that time in that place was basically the result of a confrontation with outsiders, against which the Metis identity solidified… but how this argument (to which I agree) can go together with the other argument you make that today’s “real” Metis need to trace back their (genealogical) roots to that specific community? If an identity comes out from a process (a conflict, the self-awareness coming from confronting “others”) how can it be at the same time an essence contained in blood?

    (and, by the way, it is not at all as homogeneous as you suggest the identity of French and of Europeans in general: maybe it would be fair scientifically to recognize that the French from France are themselves mixed subjects of different self-recognized communities with different cultures and languages, that have been subjected to processes of internal colonialism…in this case, following a genealogical model, a mixed French-Metis is more mixed than just a mix of a general French and a complex Metis, the French part can be from South or from North France, can be from Bourgoigne or Normandie, can be a frenchsized with multiple blood strains from the other colonies in Africa or Asia, and so on… just to say that the logic you utilize, to hold some sense, should be applied to all “genealogical” belonging written in “ancestry”. Until one realizes that it becomes impossible to apply, or simply meaningless.)

    • The identity BEGAN with a process, and is carried down through kinship. It is not truly that difficult to understand.

      Many families can continue to track their kin back before the Métis became people, back to Contact. The Church loved records.

      • adamgaudry says:

        And I think this misses out on the 200 years plus of continuous social and political existence. We can abstract this to genealogy, but there are living Métis communities and Métis families to which Métis are born, raised, and enculturated. What matters is this ongoing existence as a people, not just long-ago origins. Genealogy can help solves some important collective problems in repatriating the many Métis who have been pushed out due to colonial policy, and to rebuild kinship networks, but it is not the only consideration here. To reduce us to genealogy is to ignore Metis political and social existence, which in western Canada is quite tangible.

        • salvatorederosa says:

          Thanks a lot for the clarifications! I aslo think that what matters is the ongoing existence as a people.

    • Michael Black says:

      Do you know that some of the fur traders abandoned their wives and children, to go back “to civilization”? That probably reinforced the notion of a different identity. Red River was a place others could “pull back to”, not wilderness but not busy cities.

      The men were much more likely to have experienced native culture directly (by spending long periods of time with native people). An important consideration is that contact meant disease and death, so the explorers and fur traders were more likely to see the people in a vibrant state (though ironically being the bringer of that disease). People who came to settle had a different experience with native people. In early New France, for instance, I suspect native women converted then married, which is different from a fur trader or explorer having a native wife.

      In 1854, my great, great grandmother Henrietta wrote: “I would rather not go to [eastern] Canada; how would I an uneducated dark halfbreed look among the fair and accomplished ladies …”. That was in the Red River Colony, my great, great, great grandparents moving there when he retired from the fur trade. It was people from the East who made comments about my family, not the fur trade families who were generally in the same situation.

      Louis Riel was less “indian” than Henrietta and her siblings, because their mother was Syilx. But he was more fusion, we were going to be the new people, embracing both cultures.

      And then more settlers came from the east. There were differences in the Red River Colony, but incremental compared to the differences between the “half-breeds” and the new settlers. Louis Riel got all kinds of people to be part of the provisional government, and from reading about family history I’d say he saw a place for all the half-breeds, and that would have kept identity instead of erasing it. The intermarriages were acceptable, until the settlers came from back east, and suddenly it was looked down on. It was bad enough that my great, great, great grandfather was dismissive, but Henrietta and her siblings all died young, except for the oldest sister Mary, who married a half-breed and did missionary work. I can’t believe the self-loathing going on back then. People identifying as Metis seemed to do better, accepting both worlds.

      When the expeditionary force got out there, complete with Sam Steele, there was a viciousness. Three people died during the “Rebellion”, three interconnected deaths that was driven by the newcomers. Norbert Parisien was imprisoned for some reason, he escaped and killed Hugh Sutherland. When Parisien was recaptured, he was badly beaten, Thomas Scott either participating or urging others on. Henrietta’s husband apparently stopped it, one account says he stopped a lynching. My great, great grandmother Janet Sutherland went to Louis Riel to talk him out anymore deaths, which is perhaps why Thomas Scott was the third and last casualty. The whole thing is so recent that my grandfather had a brother named Hugh, named after their mother’s dead brother. Thomas Scott seems to have deserved it, and seems to have been unlikeable, though most people don’t know the history (I didn’t before I started looking, after meeting Moe Clarke about 2009 and wondering why she identifies as Metis and I don’t). But Louis Riel is seen as the bad guy, which reflects the attitude of people like Thomas Scott at the time

      But after the expeditionary force arrived, there was a lot more violence. James Ross, chief justice in the provisional government and Henrietta’s brother (James Street in Winnipeg is named after him), his house was burned. Someone was lured out by the claim Henrietta was sick, and was badly beaten. Those were just two events that relate to my family, a reflection of the divisiveness after the “Rebellion”.

      This is the shared experience at the time.

      Louis Riel wanted a place for all of us, where choices didn’t have to be made about how to identify oneself. People joined with him, some sources say James Ross was influential in the wording of the documents, on how Manitoba came into Confederation. It could have grown, half-breeds coming from elsewhere to the “homeland”, and taking on a Metis identity, but that didn’t happen.

      Lots of people have native ancestors, they should learn about that and claim it, they can even technically be “metis” (small “m”). But wanting to be Metis seems an expediency, something to be rather than becoming whatever their ancestor was. It’s like claiming to be Cherokee when the ancestor was Haida.


  10. Thank you for writing such comprehensive and accessible articles. I’ve realized recently that I’m woefully under-educated about the history, geography, culture, languages, politics, and really everything else regarding the First Nations of North America and I think it’s absurd that I know so little. So I’m just going to be here to respectfully listen and learn. Thank you!

  11. steffen58 says:

    Grrl. Yes, It’s a nineties reference. You rock.

  12. sameo416 says:

    Great piece, thanks. In support of your comments around the westward diaspora from RR, I’ve found whole branches of my family forgotten as contact was lost as some fled RR and others stayed and integrated. One of your early comments, that you can call almosr everyone from your home community cousin is certainly true for my family.

  13. Thanks for another thoughtful piece. I am going to link to this on my blog http://metisinthecity.blogspot.ca/ . Your blog inspires me to keep writing and thinking about these issues. It is much appreciated. Nanaskomowin.

  14. metismartin says:

    Just thought I would share some research knowledge to help clarify the term Metis a bit. It would be wise to remember that the definition for the word Metis holds different meanings in English than it did in Michif and French during the time we flew our flag publicly for the first time in the early 1800’s. During the mid and later 1700’s through until 1821 many French speaking fur trade heads of family who had emigrated from Scotland, Ireland, England and elsewhere to join in the merchant trade based out of Montreal thought it wise to educate their children and their customers. Through expanding into the Lake Athabasca region in the late 1700’s the North West Company (NWC) built an expansive fur trade depot to help with the western exploration and trade. Many of the Metis shareholders and wintering partners of the NWC who were educated in Montreal and Europe with proper formal educations enjoyed continuing their studies. The families built up an extensive library at the Athabasca depot which held the largest collection of Greek, Latin, French and English books outside of Montreal. There were roughly 10 times the buildings as were in Toronto at the same period. The Metis, and the resident families enjoyed reading all these books through the long winter months. The Greek term of reference for the word Metis meant the half-human half-god children of the God Zeus. Until this time the Metis were comfortable calling themselves and being called half breeds, Bois Brule and Metis as the French understood the term as “those in the middle”. When the agents of the HBC and the English authorities began calling us Metis in a feeble attempt to be derogatory we embraced the term as meaning “Children of the God Zeus”. In this all definitions still are correct depending on what language you want to be heard in. Heya. It would be even wiser to understand that the Red River Settlement sponsored by the HBC was created to displace the Metis from their homeland they had been in for hundreds of years already. My own Metis family roots go back through the Red River and Assiniboine River valley lands previous to Thomas Douglas’s attempts to claim the territory for the HBC. Metis are a pre-contact civilization based on the merger of our Cree, Algonquin and other indigenous families agreeing to live and remain as allies of the European people joining our hereditary merchant families as one.

  15. john lavers says:

    great link to the article by tuck and yang. the move to innocence isn’t just north american native innocence. many have discovered they are celtic because of lowland scotts ancestry (or scotts irish ulster )and abosolutely no celtic culture langauge or ethnic connection. it’s cool to be celtic, like it’s cool to be native in some quarters. it’s for the same reasons. lowland anglo scotts (and ulster scotts irish)participated in the imperial project and it’s abuses almost without reservation , now usually do not support gqelic language(as too expensive) or cultural education) but are now calling themselves celts.

    both situations highlight the problem of not critically examining ones own awareness of identity, as well as the general cultural assumptions. great article.

  16. Lisa Osler says:

    I find it unfortunate that “Métis” is the official name we went with. I recently talked to a friend who is a history teacher at a Montreal French high school. Her class was in the part of the course that includes the NW resistance. She thought the curriculum wasn’t great, and her students really didn’t get that the Métis were and are a distinct cultural and political group. They were like, “ah oui, moi je suis métis!” when their parents are Jamaican and French or something. In French anyone with any white + indigenous mix could rightly call themselves métis, the same as someone could if they were Vietnamese and Italian. Seems like we wouldn’t have the same confusion if we were calling ourselves Michif, or anything else that isn’t a general word that applies to all kinds of people who are not us. But at this point we’re pretty heavily invested in “Métis”. Looks like we’re stuck with the confusion until people are better educated. So thanks for writing about it!

  17. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of May 8th, 2016 | Unwritten Histories

  18. WH. says:

    I would like to start by thanking you for your dedication to, and you’re flawless articulation of Aboriginal issues across Canada. Your articles have been a source of comfort and much needed knowledge whilst discovering and exercising my Native heritage over the past few years.

    I have traced six Indigenous lines through my lineage, all but one from Quebec. All the mentioned ancestral ties (8th-11th great grandmothers).
    It is evident that my mother’s paternal great grandfather was a “half breed” by his skin color and physical features. Unfortunately, no records exist to my knowledge, documenting his Aboriginal ties. I was also shown a picture by my great aunt on her maternal side,-my 2nd or 3rd great grandmother, full blooded Aboriginal. Both of these ancestors were also born in Quebec.
    I am not federally recognized as a Metis person because all of my Aboriginal ancestry is from Quebec and even if I had documentation to prove my more recent ancestral connections, I would not be recognized as an Indian or even non status Indian because, if I understand correctly, I am not 6(2) ? Haaaa….

    I almost wholeheartedly accept that I will forever have no affiliation with the Metis community here in Alberta (I’ve never applied and I was born and live in Alberta). I get it. I’m not a RR Metis.
    However, upon networking throughout several provinces I have come upon Native people with exclusive ties to reserves in several provinces (no direct ties to the Red River settlement), receiving acceptance within the federally recognized Metis Nations because they are not eligible for status through the reserves of their grandmothers and great grandmothers (and I get that some reserve Indians have ties to RR communities but I am quite certain not the ones that I am talking about).
    I do totally get and support it why people choose this route…..(they are Metis after all?)..these people most often want to feel an acceptance that is not afforded to them otherwise because of legalities…..but perhaps I am biased at this point….because…

    I fail to recognize why someone such as myself, who would completely appreciate, be of service to and benefit from being accepted and recognized by the Metis community here in Alberta,is not entitled to recognition because of the technicality of where my ancestors are from…whilst, simultaneously, there are non status Aboriginals with exclusive ties to reserves who have Metis rights(I support!) and more than one federally recognized Metis persons who claim Metis rights simply to hunt(it’s obviously not the majority but again, I have met a few! and I have a hard time understanding this!)

    I recognize that there are or have been many discrepancies in Metis Nations not affiliated with the Red River settlement, but that has also been the case within Metis settlements associated with the Red River settlement. That being said, I also have a hard time understanding why the councils of the Metis Nations associated with Louis Riel, Gabriel Dumont, RR etc..refuse to push for legal acknowledgement and/or why they refuse to humanly acknowledge, personally, Metis people outside of the RR….
    Do they not see the benefit in elevating the spirits of people who feel akin to the wider Aboriginal community?
    I ask this, obviously, as my mixed ancestors were not given the opportunity to thrive as a vibrant and distinct culture as result of systemic racism and ethno-cultural assimilation practices… Paralleling stories to federally recognized Metis,Natives and even non status, but still considered lesser by the majority of the wider Aboriginal communities…..sigh.

    • The fact that there are some people who are recognized as Métis, who should not be, is not a compelling argument for letting in others who feel themselves more worthy, I’m sorry. It is not the job of the Métis Nation to be the “go-to” place for people with Indigenous ancestry that do not fit in any other category, and I think when you understand that this is actually the request being made, that makes sense.

      There are so many different ways to honour your ancestry. In some cases, people who look to the Métis Nation more properly should be looking to the Indigenous nation their ancestry is from. Again, Métis are not defined by being mixed! Almost all First Nations people in Canada are mixed to some extent, this does not mean they are no longer First Nations! If your ancestry is Ojibwe, why not look to the Ojibwe? You still have to respect their position on the matter, and in some cases, people need to make peace with simply having ancestry, not contemporary membership.

      • metismartin says:

        It is a Metis practise to embrace those as family who desire to travel and live with us as long as they abide by our traditions and know their place in our society. Our traditions and histories go back through the majority of the indigenous families we stem from so knowing where someone fits in our family groupings depends on that person’s own history as well as their ancestry. Many of the Ojibwe, and other nations, are also descended from ancestral Metis families whose belonging to the Metis is easily understood by our current elders and heads of families. The Metis are and will always be first nations – there is no distinction in our origins. The Metis are a living people and our definition stems from our families outwards not from another society looking in.

      • WH. says:

        “Worthy” is redundant in my vocabulary to this matter. There are other categories; “non status”, metis, mixed blood, those that simply fall into non existence because blood quantum is a factor and more insulting words such as “squatters”.

        Is my Metis cousin who has ancestral ties to the RR Metis communities, who helped to found the MNO and for political reasons, no longer apart of the MNO not a relation? Is the extended family I have in Quebec, who have ancestral ties to the RR rebellion and who were apart of the MNO prior to Powley, not a relation to the RR Metis anymore?

        The logical conclusion in regards to your last statement to metismartin is that not only are people of mixed ancestry not considered relations but people of all First Nations communities in the eastern provinces are not relations if they don’t fit into a certain box. Am I right? That seems harsh and counters what I thought I knew about Aboriginal cultures outside of the political climate.

        “Make peace” ???

        The same way that many people in the greater Canadian community feel towards Indigenous people claiming treaty and settlements rights and nationhood and cultural distinction etc? (and no, in essence it’s not really different or right if you think about it because although one group was lucky enough not to be completely taken advantage of economically, all Aboriginal people faced social, cultural and ethnic genocide).

        • I’m not sure how it is possible to misunderstand my words, repeated as they have been. Let me sum up once more:

          1) The Métis are a post-Contact Indigenous people with roots in the historic Red River community.

          2) Our communities are diasporic, and peopled by Métis with extensive kinship ties to one another, and to surrounding First Nations.

          3) No historic communities linked in this way to the RR exist east of Ontario. (Before editing I accidentally said west!)

          4) Métis people with RR ties may LIVE in areas west of Ontario, but their historic Métis communities are within the Métis diaspora.

          The rest of your comments have no bearing on anything I have written.

          • Gail Morin says:

            I’m confused. Are you saying there are no Metis communities “WEST” of Ontario? Isn’t Manitoba west of Ontario?

            The Metis communities of Alberta including the families of Campion, Callihoo, Cardinal, Courteoreille (just to name the C’s) have no connection to the Red River Settlement. There may be a thin kinship line with one of Louis Callihoo’s daughters, but I see no 19th century link with any of the other families. Therefore, by your logic the Lac Ste.Anne/Lesser Slave Lake Metis are not Metis. Many of those residents did apply for and received Half-Breed scrip. And the purpose of the scrip ___________? The earlier Metis cousins from EAST of Ontario, were not given the same consideration.

            Madeleine Campion, wife of Basile Larance Jr.; #269; HB child; Address: Fort McLeod P.O.; Born: St.Albert N.W. Terr. in 1860; Father: William Campion (HB); Mother: Philomene (HB). I lived in the North West Territories ever since I was born (in 1860). My parents were plains hunters before. I resided with them in the North West Territories before & after the 15th July 1870 to this day. We were at Swan River from 1878 to 1882 since then here at McLeod. Occupation: I am the wife of a Labourer & Freighter; Married: Basil Larance the younger at McLeod in 1878; Children: 2 living: Marie Rose, 5; Julien, 3; of myself & Basile Larance Jr.; one deceased: he died last spring the same day of his birth he was not married. I prefer to take a scrip for $240.00 rather than 240 acres of land. Madeleine Campion (x) wife of Basile Larance Jr.; 14 May 1885; French; Francois Descamps (x); Joseph Martin dit Macaron (x); $240 approved. C-14937

          • Oooph, what a typo! I mean east. I edited that and indicated that I did so so your comment doesn’t seem out of the blue!

            It is not the case that Lesser Slave Métis, Lac Ste. Anne Métis, Settlement Métis and so on have no connection to the Red River. Those ties remain firm, through intermarriage, constant travel to and from, including many communal hunts that drew participants from all the Métis communities. This highlights the incompleteness of genealogies alone as a source of identity. It isn’t simply enough to claim ancestry, the relationships we rely up on as members of a Nation are much larger than this.

            Again, there may even be people living east of Ontario with genealogical links to the Red River, but there are no historic Métis communities there. Those people are living outside the Métis homeland. Their presence outside the Métis homeland does not create a community after the fact, just as me living in Montreal does not transform Montreal into a historic Métis community.

          • Here are some stories, available online, about various Alberta Métis and their connection to the buffalo hunt, and to Red River. This history cannot be found in pedigree charts alone.


          • metismartin says:

            My dear Apihtawikosisan, your opinion that the Metis are a post contact people is incorrect. Using that logic you could also say all “first nations” people are post contact people because they are all of mixed genetic origin. Our traditions and language are indigenous and are of pre-contact origins. The grandmothers and kokums who brought our traditions and our families forward belong to the merchant families of all the known indigenous nations yet of primarily Cree, Algonquin and Iroquoian origin. Portions of our community settled in different regions where they had kinship ties, including, Scotland, Rome, France, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Mexico and elsewhere yet still holding their Metis inheritance as one family. Your comment number 3 is so far removed from the truth it is apparent the knowledge behind that opinion is in need of help. The fact behind the HBC RR settlement is that it was designed to cut off the Metis from our merchant ties to the NWC and from being able to supply them with pemmican and other trade goods. It was the push to make the RR settlement that inspired the Metis from across the network of trade settlements to fly our flag for the first time in opposition to the RR settlement. The term Metis diaspora is a modern definition that has no root in the history of our traditional and hereditary Metis families.

          • I’m not your dear. Condescend to someone else.

            We became a distinct Nation after Contact, it’s not whether or not we were mixed. Of course we did not coalesce out of thin air, no one claims that, but we are not merely the odds and ends of various cultures stuck together any which way. Culturally and historically we are a different people than the sum of our origins, while still remaining greatly linked First Nations.

            And absolutely, First Nations have also experienced a lot of “genetic mixing”, but remain First Nations. We are all, First Nations, Métis and Inuit, Indigenous peoples.

            I seriously hope you are not claiming there are Métis communities in Scotland, Uruguay, Chile and so on. Good lord. Métis people, sure. Communities? No.

            You are conflating Selkirk’s Settlement with already existing Red River communities. Happy to clear up that confusion for you. Your objection to the term diaspora has no merit.

            Many thanks, we’re done.

  19. Gail Morin says:

    Thank you for the very informative link. It references the Erasmus, Trottier and Welsh family branches who had moved to the Saskatchewan area before 1870-1871. That, of course, is what young, healthy Metis of the time did.

    You are correct, everything cannot be explained with baptism, marriage, and burial records. I also collect the stories and other evidence. Again, there is no link to the historic RRS for the Salois, Courtepatte, L’Hyrondelle, Coureoreille, and only a weak like for Calihoo family’s. The Alberta Hunt was not the early RRS hunt. The Fort des Prairie people liked to eat. There were buffalo available in large numbers for them to use. They also worked for the NW Company and undoubedly made and sold Pemmican. I’m also reasonably certain the Native population did the same. The Alberta Metis who had spent their lifetime in early day Alberta, were never part of a rebellion of any kind.

    Yes, the RRS Metis moved WEST. Many of the Metis were mixed-bloods long before they arrived at the Red River area of today’s Manitoba. They came from the EAST or their previous Metis communities.

    While I do not know more than a single thing about the Micmac, etc. ancestry, I do not judge what I do not understand.

    • Yes, I get it. You are attempting to show that the widely accepted definition of a Métis Nation is sooooo disenfranchising, it would even leave many Alberta Métis out. This is precisely the sort of argument made by every group arguing that there exist Métis communities east of Ontario. Unfortunately, this argument only works when pretty much everything but genealogy is ignored.

      The Métis Nation coalesced in the 1800s, just as I already pointed out in the piece we are commenting on. It is flat out ridiculous to even suggest by implication that Métis from the western diaspora couldn’t be Métis because they weren’t ALL in the Red River for the rebellion of either 1869 or 1885. The ethnic group we are discussing, the Métis Nation, is comprised of people with a shared history, culture and language, and those people began spreading out before either of those events. Individuals need not be present at every historic incident to be part of a wider socio-political and cultural millieu; particularly when they end up feeling the effects of those events anyway, both positive AND negative. The kâ-mâyahkamikahk affected OUR communities, and OUR allies, not other far flung “half-breed” and “métis” individuals who do not share our culture, language, or history.

      I am not interested in arguments that attempt to put the burden of proof on people or communities who are established members of the Métis Nation. The scholarship is solid, and we know our histories quite well, thanks.

      The burden of proof, when claiming to be another distinct “Métis” people, is on those making the claim, and all the luck to them. Let them do the work to show their historic communities, the way in which they became a distinct people, and the way they are connected to those communities now. Amateur genealogy websites, screenshots of books found when googling one’s own surname and a campaign of ignorant fear mongering which attempts to claim the Métis Nation’s definition for itself will disenfranchise people within it, do not count as scholarship.

      Whether they are successful or not, they are still not us.

      • Gail Morin says:

        Do I believe if someone has a genealogy that includes a 10th great-grandmother, they are Metis? No. Do I believe there are Metis Communities other than the Red River Settlement community? Yes. The British Columbia Metis would be such an historic community. They, like the Alberta Metis, don’t have to prove what is. Like I said, I know nothing about Micmacs, etc. My opinion only…. The “Metis Nation” should read the “Metis Community”. Metis don’t have sovereign status in Canada. I do find the current Canadian experience interesting. I do not judge a person who has a newly found connection to their Metis Ancestry in the Red River Settlement or anywhere else. They are happy. I guess they are Metis. They have a card. We should be proud of our Native grandparents no matter how distant. The Daniel’s decision has not changed that. As for the “Politics”.— It is what it is, but I have a premonition it is about to change.

  20. Melinda Artz says:

    Clear and sharp as first ice. Thank you for your honorable work.

  21. Pingback: On Métis Archaeology – metisarchaeologist

  22. Pingback: Unwritten Histories

  23. Pingback: 2016: A Year (ish) of Canadian History in Review | Unwritten Histories

  24. Pingback: Métis legal traditions, reciprocity and the curious case of consumable identity | Urbane Adventurer: Amiskwacî

  25. Pingback: Hurtful Histories: Louis Riel and Why Accuracy Matters | Unwritten Histories

  26. Ralph cunningham says:

    Right on I’m so glad I read this I’m from J.B.Wilkie leader of the hunt Red River…when I posted in a Eastern Metis site an said I don’t think leader of the hunt should be used as a political title because it’s from the Red River area..an they aren’t hunting buffalo in Ontario I think it’s disrespectful….oh boy did they let me have it….so now I’m saying they act like children playing cowboys an Indians…with little or no claim to being Metis

Leave a Reply