Métis Identity: Past, Present, and Future

by Marcia Veldman
Athabasca University

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A Métis York boat brigade at Cumberland House, Sask., 1912. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada, PA-017395)

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.

 

 

 

​Three Approaches: The Interpretation of the Numbered Treaties

by Marcia Veldman
Athabasca University

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This is an original photograph of the conclusion of negotiations for Treaty No. 3 at the North West Angle. It was taken by Wright Bros. Photographers of Rat Portage, now Kenora, Ontario. The photo shows a gathering of First Nations Treaty negotiators. In the front row are four men, three of whom are wearing medals that represent Canada’s Treaty promises. Two of the men hold pipes with long pipe stems of the type used to invoke the Creator as witness to verify First Nations‘ and the Crown’s commitments to the terms of the Treaty.

From 1871 to 1921, a series of eleven treaties were signed between the Indigenous peoples of Canada and the Crown, agreements describing exchanges of ancestral lands for varied payments in return.  Although the treaties inscribed on paper are preserved for examination in our current time, the oral promises exchanged between the Chiefs and Commissioners have attenuated and diminished with the passing of time.  In recent years, cases have been brought to the Supreme Court of Canada to examine whether the federal government has fulfilled its treaty promises to the Indigenous peoples, thus demonstrating how the addressed treaties are legally interpreted by Canadian courts.  There are three primary way wherein the treaties may be interpreted:  through the literal approach of studying physical documents, through the “spirit and intent” approach focusing on the Indian understanding and oral accounts of the treaties, and through the legal interpretations from Canadian and International courts.   

When considering the literal documents which were signed by both Indigenous Chiefs and Commissioners of the Crown, it is important to note the differences between the Euro-Canadian and Indigenous cultures Although the European settlers had used paper and coin currency as a means for payment for several hundred years, the Indians did not possess an understanding of the value of banknotes due to the recent introduction of it into their societies, therefore rendering the promises of financial annuities meaningless for many.  As stated in an interview with John Yellowhorn, “…no one explained to the Indian what this paper money was for.  They were told it was for trading, but they did not know its value…They did not know how to count it, what it was worth. .  Not only were the concepts presented by the Crown foreign to the Indigenous people—the treaties being written, and promises being spoken in English created another barrier to clear communication.  Interpreters were present at the signing of the treaties, yet not every dialect was represented, and the fairness of the interpreters was questionableIn 1877, the Cree brought Metis interpreter Peter Eramus to the signing of Treaty Seven to clarify the terms of the treaty.  Eramus later stated, “‘…my sympathies transferred to the Governor’s side.  From that point onward, Eramus was the main conduit through which information was passed from the Commission to the Indians” .  Finally, the Crown and each person involved with writing the treaties demonstrated a culture built from occidental philosophy, which included the concept of property ownership.  The British subscribed to the concept of private ownership, but the Indians cyclical philosophy led them to believe that land ownership was impossible as the lands belong to the Creator themselves. The Indians did not believe they could truly relinquish the property outlined in the treaties because “they were never given such unconditional ownership by their grantor (the Creator)…” . 

With the concepts presented in the written treaties lacking clarity, and the language used inaccessible for the Indians, the second approach to interpreting the treaties is invaluable to understanding how the spirit of the treaties was interpreted by the Indigenous peoples.  The Crown and Euro-Ccanadian settlers valued the power of written contracts and agreements but failed to understand that the Indians viewed oral promises in the same light:  as legal contracts andwhen oral communication takes place, it is understood that men are literally bound by their words” .  Logically, if the bands valued oral promises as strongly as written contracts, it would prove difficult for the Commissioners and agents to create an understanding that only written documents bore any legal weight with the signing of each treaty.  Though they attempted to clarify the contents and significance of the treaties, “there are serious doubts that the Commission was ever successful in explaining this concept to the Indians.  It was a constant problem associated with the negotiation of every Indian treaty” Intertwined with the importance of oral contracts was the spirituality wherein the Indians approached the treaty ceremonies:  the smoking of the peace pipe was a ritual of seeking guidance from the Great Spirit .  The Commissioners and agents, however, did not grasp the spiritual significance of these ceremonies to the Indigenous people; the spirit with which the Indians approached the treaties and the cultural philosophies they celebrated were significant to themselves but were not understood by other parties present.  These cultural differences are the fundamental reason why the spirit and intent with which the Indigenous people interpreted and participated in the treaty signings should be accounted for when considering the legality and content of the treaties. 

Finally, the third approach to interpreting the treaties is through international and Canadian laws, which differ significantly.  Though the Royal Proclamation of 1763 confirmed aboriginal rights and recognized “Indian title to land as having its source in Indian ownership from time immemorial” , the numbered treaties initiated by the Crown with Indigenous nations belied this proclamation.  The treaties were based upon the European doctrine of discovery, which held that the first European country to land on unexplored land held rights over the property , and they sought to nullify all Indian right to the land.  Today the Supreme Court of Canada does not recognize the Indigenous people as a sovereign nation and continues to hold land as Crown land even though the treaties were signed between two nations.  The proprietary approach that the Crown has exhibited towards all Indigenous nations is rooted in the English law system and does not adhere to the standards of international law .   

On reflection of the three approaches to interpreting the treaties, it is difficult to definitively state which approach is the most accurate.  The treaties were written by a party with a philosophy and culture that was dissimilar from those of the signing parties, creating an inherent cognitive dissonance.  Each approach is vital to interpreting the treaties, and therefore the written and oral contracts should be considered when examining the history and standing legalities of these treaties. 


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