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My Métis: struggle to define term reveals multiple meanings

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/6/2015 (760 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

While the jacket copy and title itself suggest a fairly specific topic of study, Rekindling the Sacred Fire actually serves as an excellent, albeit challenging, primer on the who, what and why of the Métis in Manitoba and elsewhere.

For author Chantal Fiola, a descendant of the historic Red River Métis Nation and an academic working and teaching at the University of Manitoba, there has always been a missing piece. Many Manitoba Métis families were traditionally -- at least nominally -- Catholic, but many modern Métis, including Fiola herself and a dozen or so interview subjects, have rediscovered the spiritual beliefs and practices of their indigenous sides only in recent decades.

Even here, in the historic birthplace of the Métis nation, there is often significant confusion over who is and is not Métis -- what is and is not a part of Métis culture -- partly because there isn't always a single answer. The word literally means "mixed," as in those with both European and indigenous Canadian parentage, but the Manitoba Metis Federation is just one group that tends to emphasize the historical origins and the unique culture that appeared near the Red River Colony in the 1800s rather than the (mostly irrelevant) genetics involved.

After all, a modern-day Ojibwa woman who happens to have children with a French-Canadian man won't likely find their children spontaneously dancing the Red River jig. But a person descended from that historic nation might have had at least some of those traditions passed on to them.

This is a scholarly work with a lengthy bibliography, but it manages to raise hackles and goosebumps in turn. We hear of indigenous women learning from a young age to hide in a ditch when a car drives by because of the ever-present threat of sexual assault, of the plight of Métis and non-Status Indians who suffered abuse in residential schools, but were specifically excluded from the federal government's apology to survivors.

While scholarship on Métis issues is growing, the existing quantity of material is small compared to similar work on First Nations. To compensate for areas where Métis-specific studies are lacking, Fiola deftly draws on a wide range of other work. She cites studies of American mixed-race citizens, comparing U.S. blood quantum laws (which distinguished between negroes and mulattoes) to Canadian ones (which were similarly divisive of Indians and half-breeds). And she describes the similar experiences of First Nations and Métis -- for example, the government's use of the child welfare system during the 1960s as a tool to destroy indigenous culture.

Where the book really comes to life is in the words of the interview subjects of her book. They clearly demonstrate the diversity of a unique ethnicity whose political identify is solidifying but whose lived experiences have run the gamut from white Canadians ignoring or denying any aboriginal heritage to those consciously and proudly Michif to Anishinaabe who just happen to have a few European ancestors.

Fiola's subjects do speak on spirituality, however at least as much of the book is spent on historical context, identity politics, racism, genocide, and other meaty topics. The most interesting part of the book is hearing, in their own words, how being Métis can have very subtle or very significant effects on the way a person perceives herself or is perceived by others.

The book and its subjects seem to affirm that even a trodden-on people can stand up and claim the right to define themselves.


Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and teacher who is Métis.


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Updated on Saturday, June 27, 2015 at 12:40 PM CDT: Adds photo

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