by Marcia Veldman
The Métis ethnogenesis was born from a confluence of identities both assigned by Indigenous nations and Euro-Canadian fur traders, as well as self-identified by the Métis community themselves. The diaspora of the Métis across North America did not diminish the strong will of the Métis to collectively self-identify as a community, an identity that grew within the new generations of Métis as they continued to live on ancestral lands, practice their culture, and speak Michif when possible.
The act of Métissage (racial mixing) began when European immigrants established contact with the indigenous inhabitants of both the north and south Americas. As France established settlements in the New World, they attempted to assimilate the indigenous people to the European life by “trying to use racial intermixing as an instrument of the empire”; the attempt to create a French New World by producing offspring of French settlers failed as the generations began to self-identify as a New Nation: Métis. However, the Métis were not restricted to being solely of French heritage: the European backgrounds were varied between French, Scottish, and English, and marriages to native women would occur among English fur traders and settlers on Hudson Bay as native women proved invaluable with their knowledge and skills navigating the local terrain. Perhaps even more confusing was the fact that not all offspring of those in interracial relationships considered themselves Métis – some simply self-identified as “Half-breeds” or “country born Indians” . It seems impossible to define the Métis identity as being comprised strictly of one component or another.
Geographically the strongest presence of Métis identity is observed in the Prairie provinces; although the identity of the Métis may be diminished in the Eastern provinces, Jacques Rousseau claimed that “forty percent of French Canadians could find at least one Amerindian in their family trees”and one can extrapolate that the supposed absence of Métis in these province may be due to the century old denial of historians of the existence of the Métis . Despite Samuel de Champlain’s statement to the Indians: “Our young men will marry your daughters, and we shall be one people” , European settlers were reluctant to accept the existence of interracial offspring due to their post-Renaissance ideals of pure bloodlines.
While the Métis identity may not have flourished in Eastern provinces, the community continued to grow in the interior provinces and prairies. The male Métis offspring became proficient as hunters, trappers, or canoemen, while the females learned traditional skills from their mothers such as constructing shelters and preparing food. Many Métis men worked as agents for the Hudson Bay Company or North West Company, and they could be identified by their “blue capote (coat), beaded pipe bag and bright red L’Assomption sash”, creating a type of cultural uniform. The Métis clothing would become a combination of European embroidery and utilitarian materials, creating a clothing conducive to life in the wilderness . From within this community grew a fierce sense of independence, characterized in the Cree name given to them: Otipemisiwak, meaning, “the people who command themselves” or “the free people” . As the Métis began to self-identify culturally as a distinct community, the Indigenous people and European immigrants acknowledged the Métis existence by assigning names and definitions of the Métis as a cohesive and singular group of people.
The identity of the Métis deepened as Michif, a language formed from the mixing of French and Cree linguistics and said to be “a unique outcome of Métis mixed ancestry and creativity”, became the primary language of the Métis. Michif itself is likely to have begun upon initial contact between the French settlers and Indians, although there is little historical record regarding the evolution of the language . Despite the undeniable existence of this language, Michif continues to be ignored, and attempts to introduce Michif as a language officially taught or spoken within reservations has been met with opposition as some believe Ojibwa and Cree should be taught in their pre-European state without reflecting the influence of European languages .
In 1814, Miles Macdonnell, Governor of Assiniboia, issued a proclamation prohibiting the Métis from selling goods to fur trade companies. Other punitive proclamations would follow, causing tensions between the Métis and Upper Canada, and ultimately leading to a military skirmish in 1816. Following this uprising, the Métis flag was flown for the first time, an infinity symbol representing the eternal synthesis of two cultures. Despite the Métis having been recognized by as a distinct community by other Indigenous nations, Euro-Canadians, Europeans, and colonial United Kingdom, they remained ineligible for land grants and were excluded from the treaty systems . Disagreements over the attempts to dispossess Métis from their land created a catalyst leading to further military action under the leadership of Louis Riel.
Despite facing systemic prejudice and racism, like their ancestors before, the Métis have survived hardships to emerge as a community with a stronger identity and a clear voice that demands to be heard. Though their language is ignored, their history denied, and their existence diminished, the Métis continue to evolve and share their culture for those of us who need to hear their story. The identity of the Métis does not rely on being of certain mixed heritage, but rather exists as a result of Métis ancestors making the conscious decision to self-identify as a singular nation and community of people rather than identifying as a mixed-race nation. Today, the Crown- Métis Nation Summits have been a significant step in reconciliation between the Government of Canada and the Métis Nation. The Canadian government has pledged to listen to concerns raised by the Métis Nation and work together toward reconciliation and a better understanding of what it means to identify as Métis in modern day Canada.