Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
New Perspectives on Métis History
In the course of his 2003 Massey Lectures, Thomas King commented on what a strange thing it is that there is a so-called "Indian Act" that defines who is and who isn't an "Indian" under canadian law. After all, he noted, it's not as if there's a "French Act" that determines who is french canadian, or a quebecker, I would add. The idea of a "French Act" is risible, so much so that even acts intended to help preserve the french language in canada aren't called anything like the "French Act." He's right, of course, and the point he is making is that the "Indian Act" is a vicious colonial and colonizing piece of legislation that is intended to prevent the Indigenous people it affects from defining themselves and their communities, thereby preventing them from performing one of the most basic acts of self-government. It is also intended to remove all "Indians" from existence by legislative fiat, and in the canadian government's view, all treaty obligations and evidence of current and past colonial wrongdoing. All this regardless of the ongoing existence of Indigenous peoples on their lands, in polities, knowing themselves and one another as such. It doesn't matter how the "Indian Act" is dressed up, that is what it's for. It includes a de facto blood quantum requirement to this day, which if followed can only result in legislative extinction. It is not necessary to have the "Indian Act" around to be Indigenous, and it has precisely nothing to do with treaty relationships whatsoever.
Nevertheless, a whole lot of non-Indigenous people seem to think that not only is the "Indian Act" necessary for there to be Indigenous people at all, not just "Indians," they seem to also believe that they or at least their "duly elected government" have the right to decide who is Indigenous and who is not. This does not stop at those they agree must be "Indians." It extends right out to Inuit and Métis, although at least for now, no canadian government has seriously considered trying to make up an "Inuit Act" and a "Métis Act" to go with the "Indian Act." Nevertheless, this has not prevented various government bodies and other "experts" from attempting to control the definitions of "Inuit" and "Métis", claiming that they know better than the actual people who are members of those social, political, and cultural polities. I am going to focus on Métis here, a reflection of current developments in the canadian political scene, and of course of the fact that I am myself a member of the Métis Nation.
Colonial Confusion Of Terms
The thing about colonialism is that making a confused mush of terms in order to facilitate interference with and eventual take over of the polities the colonists want to take control of is a central tactic. The people most invested in confusing the terms will complain about the confusion the loudest, and insist that they aren't to balme for the mess, even as the people being targeted by this explain in their most patient tones as many times as they are asked what the correct terms are, who they are, and why really, none of this horrible stuff is even necessary because we can live together peacefully, colonialism is not necessary. Controlling language is a proxy for social and political control, something that is meant to remind everybody of who the new boss is everyday. This is exactly why many settler french in québec still become enraged if it appears that any federal policy may be geared to pushing the french language out of use. They are also well aware that language is tied to culture and the ability to maintain a cohesive community through sharing that culture and language and living together. It's not the only reason of course, but for now this is the most germane one for this essay.
So it was that from the moment that the new "canadian" government became aware of a self-governing, Indigenous polity in the west where it intended to expand and indulge in the rampant land speculation that late 19th men of middle and upper class aspirations used to make fortunes, the first step taken was to insist that these "Métis" weren't real people. They were just disaffected "breeds," the degraded children of white men with Native women who had refused the gifts of civilization. As far as that government, and many of its successors were concerned, Métis had no culture, no political organization, nothing that made them distinct except for their failure at being "white." This was the same time period in which so-called "scientific racism" was on the first part of its rapid rise, and the words that would later take on such sinister connotations such as "Aryan" were already slipping into wider use, including by the first head of the canadian government, John A. MacDonald. The facts of ethnogenesis had to be denied, and so did the self-governing facts of life for all of the First Nations in the then "Northwest Territories." Métis and First Nations alike were denied any history of their own, considered mere automatons blankly repeating handed down behaviours from the distant past. This description may sound like a parody of animals behaving according to instinct, but it is not. The parallels were understood and deliberately constructed at the time in the canadian press, speeches in parliament, and the various pamphlets and talks of a range of boosters and get rich quick schemers.
The Métis Nation – A Métis Nation?
I am going to start by mercilessly stomping on John Ralston Saul's bubble. The settler state of canada is not a "Métis" nation in any sense of the word. It is a loosely joined federation in which the majority of the non-Indigenous population is struggling to overcome and put aside for ever colonialism and end the structures that maintain and impose colonial violence. Many of them have experienced it already elsewhere, or previous generations of their families did. Some of them have found out what it was like to be in the position of imposer, and finally come to realize that they could not accept that either, because it is unjust and unethical. Also within but not of that federation in most cases, are numerous Indigenous nations, among them the very new Métis Nation relative to the First Nations. Some Indigenous nations have signed treaties with "canada," some are still negotiating them. Others have thrown up their hands in disgust and said, "When canada stops insisting on a dishonest treaty making process and stops trying to genocide us, maybe we'll talk." For good or ill, we Métis, as Adam Gaudry has noted, already have a treaty with canada, but canada likes to call it the "Manitoba Act." There is no way it is appropriate to call canada a "Métis nation" as a whole, because that term in english does not mean now, if it ever did, merely "mixed race." Even in french, where to my knowledge "métis" remains a generic term, it does not refer to race at all, but to some type of social mixedness, and this was certainly true in pre-19th and 19th century "canada." In french, it appears to have especially referred to what we would now call someone of mixed class origins – in other words, some rich man's bastard child. This was not a revered position to be in then, even less so if the "lower class" woman was Native and not considered assimilated. And no Native woman was ever considered totally assimilated.
So if "Métis" isn't such a generic term after all, and the colonial terminology is a deliberately created morass for nefarious purposes, what is the better alternative? A surprisingly simple, but for some people and extremely difficult to accept one. No, not the "little 'm' versus big 'M'" nonsense that canadian scholars such as Jacqueline Peterson advocated for awhile, hoping that that would be a workable and appropriate solution. She has since conceded that despite the good intentions behind it, the idea encouraged the very confusion she and her colleagues had hoped to avoid. I haven't heard many people apart from scholars engaged in critical ethnic and race studies pointing out that it couldn't work, because merely being "mixed race" which generally assumes "mixed with white" does not instantly make a person a member of a specific Indigenous polity. For another reasonable parallel, laudable as learning to speak and read french fluently is, that by itself cannot make anyone instantly a quebecker, or even a french canadian. For most people when they think of french canadians and quebeckers, they can immediately identify why. French canadians and quebeckers have histories and communities that are distinct from, though certainly interconnected with, their neighbours. This applies just as accurately to Indigenous polities, including the Métis Nation centred on Red River.
So, when it comes to Métis and the Métis Nation, as Gaudry and Leroux have noted, "Scholars such as Andersen and Peterson have thus reoriented the discussion of Métis identity to historical self-ascription and political consciousness rather than biological descent from unspecified Indigenous ancestors." Right now, the evidence in terms of both mainstream and Indigenous oral evidence is that the Métis Nation was and is a self-ascribed politically conscious and politically cohesive community, with a shared history and language, and a distinctness that was already recognized by non-Métis by at least the mid-19th century if not a hundred years and more earlier. The territory of this nation is non-exclusive of course, since we have to share and have sensible relationships with our First Nations kin, and includes what is presently referred to as the prairie provinces, northeast british columbia, and a part of southwestern ontario, as well as significant parts of montana and north dakota. There is inconclusive evidence of smaller parts of idaho and washington state as well. This is not news by the way, as the map featured in an article on the Métis homeland on canadian geographic shows, quoted below. The culture and language of this nation are distinct though clearly related to the nearest kin First Nations, Cree, Nakota, Anishinaabeg (especially Saulteau), and Dakota. Like most Indigenous languages in the americas, the Métis language michif is currently in grave trouble, though language revitalization efforts are going on apace, and in the meantime Plains Cree has been and remains a widely shared language.
Please note that neither I nor any of the scholars quoted or others in on the discussion are suggesting that the Métis Nation that has its origins in the early 18th century must be the only one. There is no reason to expect that ethnogenesis is not continuing among Indigenous (or non-Indigenous) communities. Other communities will certainly also have a shared history, self-ascription, distinct culture and so on that has existed over a multi-generational basis and is associated with specific places. Some may use the term "Métis" for themselves, although this is actually unlikely. If they have a specific history and culture of their own, they will also have their own name. What makes Métis and other newer Indigenous nations Indigenous is not merely having a more or less obscure group of ancestors from various First Nations. They will have more specific and identifiable relationships to First Nations that involve ongoing reciprocal relations, and they follow and uphold Indigenous ways of living with the land, including ceremony and the previously mentioned reciprocal relations.
A Clearer Picture
Ethnogenesis is a difficult thing for peoples with a colonialist mindset to accept. It is beyond colonial control, and it is complicated. Worse yet, it defies the stubborn "western" insistence on essentialism which is having a terrible efflorescence right now, reflected in the current rash of racist claims about muslims and bizarre claims that femininity and masculinity are inborn essences while biology is a social construct. This efflorescence is not wholly surprising, since this is also a time of great political, social, and environmental change, all of which simply isn't stoppable. Essentialism is a deeply conservative way of thinking, its purpose to somehow stop the clock. It is also extremely handy for reinforcing and supporting colonialism and structural violence. Yet it is in fact completely ineffective. It has neither helped colonists achieve the elimination of First Nations, nor prevented or eliminated the ethnogenesis of new groups and nations. This is not a bad thing. There is no reason for ethnogenesis or even division into separate polities from a larger often artificially imposed polity to lead to warfare. Each time warfare has been involved, we can find one or more well-armed outside parties hoping to control the land or some "resource" associated with the land at work, encouraging conflict if not outright attacking the new nation.
In the case of the Métis Nation, the sad fact is that contrary to the original claims that the Red River Métis were rebels or renegades of some kind, which implies they were basically violent just because they didn't to follow any laws, or that they were opposing an established government, the Métis Nation was already self-governing with a known and consistent set of enforced laws before "canada" came along. Louis Riel became the spokesperson for what was specifically characterized as a provisional government, which participated in a written process attempting to peacefully come to a settlement with the new canadian government. The associated petitions and bills of rights – which acknowledged and enshrined the rights of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in what would eventually become the original "postage stamp province" of manitoba. Until canadian policy had completed the deliberate flooding of that province with non-Indigenous immigrants from ontario and the dispossession of Métis by legal shenanigans, fraud, and unremitting violence, Métis voted in federal elections and sent representatives to the canadian parliament and held seats in the provincial legislature. It was John A. MacDonald and his cronies who refused to allow Louis Riel to take his seat when elected as member of parliament, based on trumped up charges. Contrary to canada trying to appropriate Riel as a "father of confederation," he was a Métis patriot, who stood for respect for Indigenous and minority language rights, and insisted along with many Métis at the time that territories and provinces should join confederation via negotiated agreements and their pre-existing governments and land-holdings should be respected.
- 2016 Stanley, Timothy J. "John A. Macdonald, 'the Chinese' and Racist State Formation in Canada." Journal of Critical Race Inquiry, 3(1): 6-34.
- To my knowledge, no Indigenous culture views animals or plants in this way, let alone themselves or other humans. It is really very strange.
- Saul's best known formulation of his racist and racializing claims about the settler state of canada is provided in A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada. Aspects of what he is saying are of course true and fine. Yes, "canada" has been influenced and still is being influenced by Indigenous peoples, nations, and cultures.
- See Gaudry's talk on this subject as one of the University of Winnipeg's Weweni Speakers Series on their youtube channel. It is also worth reading his guest post on the library and archives canada blog.
- See 2017, Adam Gaudry and Darryl Leroux, "White Settler Revisioning and Making Métis Everywhere: The Evocation of Métissage in Quebec and Nova Soctia," Critical Ethnic Studies, 3(1): 116-142.
- For more on this point, see Minelle Mahtani's Mixed Race Amnesia: Resisting The Romanticization Of Multiraciality (UBC Press: Vancouver, 2014) for a start.
- See Gaudry and Leroux above or Chris Andersen in Métis: Race, Recognition, and teh Struggle for Indigenous Peoplehood (UBC Press: Vancouver, 2014).
- Gaudry and Leroux, page 119.