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.

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