The Métis question

Defining the uniquely Canadian people who founded Manitoba is no easy task


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Complex. Delicate. Much-debated. A struggle. One of the thorniest legal issues in Canada. A loaded question.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/02/2015 (3033 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Complex. Delicate. Much-debated. A struggle. One of the thorniest legal issues in Canada. A loaded question.

Melissa Tait / Winnipeg Free Press Justin Johnson' Métis sash sports the red version of the Métis flag (left) and the flag of the union nationale métisse Saint-Joseph du Manitoba.

With a cringe and a sigh, those are the words lawyers, historians and indigenous experts start with when asked to define who exactly is Métis — the complicated, diverse, uniquely Canadian people who founded the modern province of Manitoba and then disappeared and dispersed for decades before rebounding today.

And, even people like University of Manitoba lawyer Aimee Craft, herself Métis, Anishinabe and Irish and immersed in the debate over indigenous identity, finds herself fighting the occasional “how Métis are you, really?” eyeroll.

As important as it is to define a group, especially when constitutional rights are at stake, Craft echoes the caution many offer when talking about the Métis — it’s not her place to decide someone else’s identity, especially since indigenous people have been the frequent victims of such a clumsy practice by government.

Who is Métis?

What the Constitution says

Not much, and that’s partly why Canada is still figuring things out, 30 years later. Section 35 of the Constitution protects existing aboriginal and treaty rights of aboriginal peoples, defined as the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada. The Indian Act defined Indian people, and made a mess of it. The government never defined the Métis, who have worked hard to define themselves.

The Powley test

The 2003 Powley case was the first major aboriginal rights case concerning the Metis. It involved two Métis men, Roddy and Steve Powley, who killed a moose near Sault Ste. Marie without a license.

After a tortuous, ten-year legal battle, the Supreme Court ruled their right to hunt for food was protected by the Constitution. In the process, the court created the Powley test, which still holds today and which lays out who might claim a Métisright.

The judges made it clear that a Métis right can’t be claimed by someone who simply has mixed indigenous and European ancestry. You must be part of the distinctive Métis people, who have their own customs separate from their First Nations and European ancestors. Among the questions posed by the test:

Are you a member of a contemporary Métis community, that calls itself Métisand that has historic roots that date back before Europeans took effective control of a territory?

Is there an objectively verifiable process to confirm you’re a member of a Métis community, a process based documented history, self-identification and community acceptance? (The Manitoba Métis Federation’s process is a good example.)

Is the right being claimed — in the Powley case, subsistence hunting — an important part of Métis life and a defining feature of a special relationship to the land? Is there continuity between the current practice and the historic one?

The MMF test

To become a member of the Manitoba Métis Federation, you must self-identify as Métis, which you essentially do by filling out the application form.

Most importantly, you must also get your genealogy done and provide documentary proof of your ancestral links to the Métis nation, the homeland that emerged from the Red River settlement.

That’s easy if your tree uncovers a name like Grant, Lagimodiere or Norquay. It’s also easy if scrip was issued to an ancestor who owed land after 1870 or if census records record “HB” for half-breed next to a relative’s name. The St. Boniface Historical Society and the Métis Culture and Heritage Resource Centre can help with all this, for a fee.

With your family tree, you can apply for MMF membership, which often includes a meeting with MMF staff.

— Source: Manitoba MétisFederation, Supreme Court of Canada, MétisNation of Ontario.

“The question to ask is, what is your connection to that Métis heritage or that existing community and, just as importantly, what are you giving back to it?” says Craft.

Despite a cultural renaissance that dates back 50 years, despite the ennobling of Louis Riel, the protection of Métis rights in the 1982 Constitution and some big legal victories since, despite no longer being the “bastards of the plains”, confusion about Métis identity persists.

Are you Métis if your mother is First Nations and your father is Mennonite?

(Probably not.)

Do you need to trace your ancestry back to the original Red River Métis settlement?

(Probably, in Manitoba at least.)

Are you Métis if you’re from a mixed-blood community in Ontario or Quebec?

(That’s touchy. Depends who you ask.)

Can you be blonde and blue-eyed and still be Métis?

(Of course.)

If you didn’t grow up fiddling and jigging and speaking Michif, can you still be Métis?


Can you be Anglo-Métis?


Do you need to have a certain amount of First Nations blood to be Métis?

(No, and the idea of a blood quantum is kind of offensive.)

Can you claim Indian status and Métis membership at the same time?

(Probably not.)

If you are Franco-Manitoban, are you also Métis?

(Not necessarily.)

Do people just call themselves Métis to get a scholarship?

(Sometimes, but it’s not quite that easy.)

Is Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman really Métis?

(Yes, but he should probably get his membership card like his sister and cousins and make it official.)

“Being Métis means constantly swimming against the current,” said Janet La France, one of the genealogists who trace people’s Métis heritage at St. Boniface’s Centre du patrimoine. “You’re constantly staking your ground and proving that you exist and proving you deserve to exist.”

Future benefits of being Métis

These questions, which are actually easier to answer in Manitoba’s politically unified Métis environment, have taken on a new urgency, thanks to a recent landmark Supreme Court decision and another case likely to be heard this year.

Those cases could mean being Métis may eventually come with significant benefits much like those won by First Nations — some role in big developments like Bipole III that go through traditional Métis hunting and trapping land, a compensation deal to fix the mess the federal government made of land promised to the Métis after 1870, a more formal duty by the government to consult the Métis, money, programs and recognition.

First, there’s the Manitoba Métis Federation decision, which delved back into the history of the province’s founding, its entry into Confederation and the deal struck by Riel and his provisional government to protect Métis landholdings and give Métis children a head-start against the expected tsunami of white settlers.

Roughly 7,000 Métis children were promised 1.4 million acres of land by the federal government. But the process of identifying what land ought to be made available to which Métis children was an unmitigated mess, rife with, in the words of the court, “repeated mistakes and inaction that persisted for more than a decade.”

As the process dragged on, children were swindled out of land by speculators. Allocations often involved the worst-quality land, scattered far from family. Scrip — paper credit — was given out instead, often far below market land values.

Where once the Métis made up 85 per cent of Manitoba and were the dominant political and cultural force, the land debacle was the beginning of a dramatic decline that lasted until after the Second World War.

The Métis land claim case took more than 30 years to work its way through the courts, and it almost bankrupted the MMF. The Supreme Court delivered its decision two years ago next month, ruling Canada acted inconsistently with the honour of the Crown when it bungled the land distribution.

The trouble is, two years later, no one yet knows what that decision means in practical, modern terms. If the federal government agrees to right the historic mess, it could mean negotiations and a settlement worth billions to Manitoba’s Métis. Or it could ultimately only offer moral vindication to the descendants of the Red River settlement. No one yet knows.

Court cases muddy waters

Coming up next is the Daniels case, a case the Supreme Court agreed to hear, likely this year, that could dramatically expand the federal government’s responsibilities to Métis and non-status Indians, effectively granting them similar rights now afforded to First Nations, including the right to be consulted on resource and land issues and access to federal programs.

Melissa Tait / Winnipeg Free Press Genealogists at the Centre du patrimoine at La Société historique de Saint-Boniface help people search for a Métis family tree to show their ancestral connection. This is the first step towards Manitoba Métis Federation membership. Historical documents must exist to prove the connection; if no proof is found the application is returned with this "no Métis found" stamp.

The case could effectively make the Métis the collective responsibility of the federal government, a huge re-thinking of an already-murky relationship that more and more covers not just the traditional “postage stamp” province that entered Confederation but also the so-called Métis breadbasket in Western Manitoba and, really, anywhere Métis people trapped, traded or settled.

Where do the Métis live?

Location of Metis Winnipeggers, from the 2011 National Household Survey:

These cases, especially Daniels, have also muddied the waters when it comes to legally defining the Métis. In Daniels, the Supreme Court may have to sort out, again, a definition of Métis. Does simply having “Indian ancestry” make you Métis, as the lower court suggested, or must you have something more, a historic and cultural connection to a unique Métis nation?

As the children of French or Scottish fur traders and First Nations mothers, the Métis in Manitoba quickly created a hybrid culture that took many local forms, expressed itself in many indigenous and European languages and spread all over a homeland that included Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Midwestern United States.

Historians and Métis activists in Manitoba describe a people known for their love of the land, for their large and close families dominated by elders, for jigging and fiddling and distinctive clothing decorated with colourful, stylized beadwork. The famous Red River cart allowed the Métis to dominate trade routes through the west and the famous red striped sash, a handy item when out on the buffalo hunt, is still their symbol.

MMF president David Chartrand talks about his family’s entrepreneurial spirit, its fear of ever becoming wards of the government and a pride that made the Métis unwilling to showcase their poverty.

Unlike First Nations, confined largely to reserves for generations, the Métis were often able to blend, especially in the dark decades of racism and marginalization following the failed Northwest Rebellion and Riel’s death. Many Métis people, if they were white enough and spoke French, passed as French and set aside their Métis roots. Others who grew up close to a reserve, who had a First Nations parent and who felt closer to First Nations culture, chose to take up their Indian status.

Melissa Tait / Winnipeg Free Press "I'm still caught between two systems... First Nations don't think I'm equal to them, and non-aboriginal society thinks I'm getting what all the Indians are getting," says David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Métis Federation.

Chartrand himself is an example of this limbo. He grew up very poor in Duck Bay, to a single mother who took in washing to make ends meet. His village was just on the outskirts of the Pine Creek First Nation, home of Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, who is Chartrand’s cousin. His granny lived on the reserve but didn’t feel comfortable there. Métis folks in Duck Bay knew they were different from Pine Creek. There was plenty of interaction, but also animosity and division.

But, when Chartrand went to Dauphin for school, he was no longer distinct from his neighbours at Pine Creek. They were all treated like “Indians” when they went to town. “The darker ones got a hell of a beating,” said Chartrand.

Chartrand spoke Saulteaux growing up. He doesn’t speak Michif — the unique combination of Cree and French created by the Métis. He speaks English with a light French accent — he says “tree” for “three” and ends sentences with the classic French-Canadian “hein?”

“I’m still caught between two systems,” said Chartrand. “First Nations don’t think I’m equal to them and non-aboriginal society thinks I’m getting what all the Indians are getting.”

Definition too narrow?

The MMF’s definition of Métis is rigid and based on the idea the Métis were the founding nation of Manitoba. You have to trace your ancestors back to the original Métis settlement in Red River — something about 100 people a month come to the St. Boniface archives to do. That means using church records and census data to look for references to ancestors listed as half-breeds or copies of scrip issued to a Métis child after 1870.

If you can’t trace your roots to Riel’s Métis, the historic nation, you can’t join the MMF and you’re not officially Métis.

But many argue that definition is too narrow, that it excludes unique communities that have sprung up elsewhere that have only a tenuous connection to Riel’s Métis Nation, if at all.

Université de Saint-Boniface professor Denis Gagnon has a $500,000 grant to study those communities and their Métis identity, in New Brunswick, Ontario, Labrador and beyond. Much like the Métis communities near Norway House or in Duck Bay, many sprung up near First Nations reserves. They were autonomous. They had a deep connection to the land and specific territorial claims and they developed a unique culture that survived for perhaps 150 years.

“They are not a nation. They are communities,” said Gagnon. “The MMF and the national Métis council always play with this word. To be Métis is to be a nation. No, to be a nation is a kind of way of being Métis. It doesn’t stop others who have distinct communities from also equally being Métis.”

Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press Métis University Students' Association President: Brad Boudreau (on the fiddle) along with student members of the association, from left: Chris Allard, Alana Robert, Erik Klassen, Chalena McKay and Jamal Abas.

In some cases, those communities are now seeking recognition from the federal and provincial governments and from national Métis organisations, and they’re bolstered by Supreme Court rulings.

Many consider those people “little m-Métis” — mixed-blood people who are unique but not as unique as the capital M Métis nation whose roots are in Manitoba.

Here’s the flipside to the ancestry-only definition: What if you can trace your ancestry to the Red River Métis but you’ve experienced no hint of Métis culture in your life — no jigging, no connection to the land, none of the racism or marginalization that is often passed through a family’s DNA?

If being Métis in Manitoba means tracing your heritage to the original Red River settlment, doesn’t that mean thousands of Manitobans with no personal link to the culture could call themselves Métis? And, doesn’t that feed the perception that many people do just that, call themselves Métis just to get a scholarship or a job, just to check a box?

That’s what Laura Kiefer wondered when she checked the box. She was applying to the Asper School of Business and remembered that an older sibling researched the family’s genealogy and discovered a Métis connection. She frankly admits she checked the “aboriginal” box in hopes it would boost her chance of getting into business school.

“I quickly started to feel a bit guilty, as if I had abused the system,” said Kiefer, who grew up in Lorette. “I decided to make a change and start trying to learn more about where I came from.”

Now, she’s an aboriginal student recruiter and vice-president of the Association of Aboriginal Commerce Students, learning more every day about her historic roots and what it means to be Métis.

That, according to Métis experts, is a common and completely legitimate experience, people looking for their Métis heritage with vague hopes of some benefit, only to discover a genuine connection with their past. Canadians of all stripes do this all the time. It’s just that some quick Googling on doesn’t usually come with constitutional consequences.

Here’s another common scenario: What if you lost touch with your Métis heritage because a parent died, you were adopted or, most commonly, your family chose years ago to pass as white in hopes of ducking some of the racism rife in Manitoba over the last century? Does that make you any less Métis?

Sara Corley — light skinned, reddish hair, Anglo last name — didn’t learn about her Métis heritage until she was 16. Her Métis father died when she was a baby, and she lost touch with his side of the family. She never, as she said, marinated in Métis culture.

It wasn’t until she was in her late teens, when she got word her grandmother might soon die, that she made contact with her father’s family, learned her ties to Marie-Anne Gaboury, the first European woman to travel and settle in Western Canada and the grandmother of Louis Riel, and learned how her grandparents were proud to be Métis but cloistered their culture to spare their children some of the burden of racism.

Now a university student studying psychology and indigenous issues, she’s teaching her three young boys Métis culture, rebuilding connections with her extended family, especially near St. Laurent, immersing herself in the dances and the music.

“I realized I had this extra thing I didn’t know about myself… I do feel like people are starting to let go of some of the shame that’s associated with history and realizing the culture is beautiful,” said Corley. “It starts with the hard stuff, and slowly we’re going to sandpaper the rough stuff into something smooth.”

A Métis story: Complicated identity

Justin Johnson’s great-great-great grandfather, with his black eyes, wayward hair and grave look, stands just behind Louis Riel in the famous 1870 group photo of Riel’s provisional government.

Justin Johnson, who identifies as Métis and Franco-Manitoban, is studying Master of Arts in Indigenous Governance at University of Winnipeg. With his thesis he is hoping to develop a Métis philosophy.

Just two years after the photo was snapped, that same ancestor, Andre Beauchemin, offered to cede his St. Vital seat so Riel could run.

When it comes to Red River roots, it doesn’t get much more Métis than that.

And, yet, for years, Johnson’s family concealed its remarkable lineage and its link to one of the founding peoples of the province.

“My grandmother would not speak of her Métis identity. My grandfather would rarely speak publicly of his Métis identity because he would lose his job,” said Johnson, now a Master’s student at the University of Winnipeg. “It was just not something we spoke about. It was never discussed around the table.”

Adding to the burden of silence was the legacy of vanished land common to many Métis families. Johnson’s ancestors farmed near Île-des-Chênes, just east of where Johnson grew up generations later in Lorette. But the federal government seized the land and turned it over to pioneers.

Growing up, gleaning tidbits from his grandparents, uncles and aunts, especially on his on mother’s side, Johnson began to realize he wasn’t just Franco-Manitoban.

“I stated to think, well, we’re definitely not only white, that we had this mixture of French Canadian ancestry and indigenous ancestry,” said Johnson, 23.

And, there were the close family ties, the endless teasing and joking, the storytelling — small things Johnson now sees as quintessentially Métis.

Johnson’s family does have his grandfather’s journals and notebooks, where he recorded his own thoughts and laid down those of other Métis leaders he read. Those scribblings, said Johnson, show how proud his grandfather was of his Métis heritage despite political and cultural pressure to blend in.

Archives of Manitoba In this 1870 photograph from the Archives of Manitoba, Louis Riel (centre) is surrounded by his council, including Justin Johnson's great-great-great-grandfather André Beauchemin (back row, third from right).

“He was honouring it by some kind of silence,” said Johnson. “It hurts me to know that. How can you be silent and at that point still be proud?”

It wasn’t until Johnson was in university and began to get active in the Franco-Manitoban community and the Conseil jeunesse provincial, a provincial youth council for francophones, that he started to get interested in his background. He researched his family genealogy, got his Métis card at 18 and nudged others in his family to do the same.

Now, as a Master’s student, he’s beginning to research the development of a particularly Métis political philosophy, one built around not just Riel’s writings but the political documents of the time that sought to balance European, Métis and indigenous values.

“We often think that one of them has to win,” said Johnson. “But you can be more than one thing, you can be two, you can be three and have different perspectives on an issue or on the fundamentals, and yet you can still live together.”

Like most Métis people, Johnson is still juggling his French-Canadian, Irish, Scottish and Métis roots, trying to find the right way to describe a complicated identity.

“Lately, I say I’m a Red River Métis,” said Johnson. “I feel as though I can publicly say I’m Métis. I can be proud of it and I can study it on my ancestors’ land.”

A Métis story: Family roots almost lost

On the day the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the Métis were deceived and defrauded out of thousands of acres of land, Shauna Mulligan remembers seeing a quick television news clip of a reporter live near Louis Riel’s gravesite in St. Boniface.

It gave her goosebumps, and it still does thinking about it today, in part because the moment sharpened a history that’s still fresh, that marks Mulligan’s link with family roots she almost lost.

Melissa Tait / Winnipeg Free Pre Shauna Mulligan, 37, learned she was Métis late in life while she was in university. She hasn't completed the process of the getting an MMF card, but she celebrates her family's Métis heritage, is proud of her sash.

“For others who grew up with the fiddling and Métis culture and the food, that may be their primary link,” said Mulligan, a 37-year-old former member of the Canadian Forces now finishing up her degree in native studies at the University of Manitoba. “For me, it’s about finding those roots.”

Mulligan knew as a kid she was Métis — her grandfather grew up near Batoche, Sask., spoke Michif, the language of the Métis people, as a child and always hung the famous red striped sash above his bed. He would talk about his love of the land and his connection to the Creator, Métis things Mulligan shrugged off as a child, and never really talked about at school.

“That was a very short trip to getting my butt kicked,” she said.

It wasn’t until she was well into adulthood, studying Métis and First Nations history and politics at university that her family’s past, known but not discussed, became clear.
“I kind of put two and two together and said ‘Oh, now I get it. Now I understand’,” she said. “I was able to finally put a name to the things that I experienced.”

Though she’s still learning, she now identifies herself as Métis, and runs into all the typical questions that raises.

“As a matter of fact, I get ‘You don’t look Métis’,” said Mulligan. “I do get friends who have known me for a while who give me the sideways look — ‘but you’re so pasty. You have blue eyes. I don’t understand how can you be Métis.’ ”

Or she gets questions about whether she has a First Nations mother and French father, and has to muddle through an explanation of the unique and historic nature of Manitoba’s Métis people.
“It’s a complicated answer,” she said. “It’s not just this one thing makes me Métis.”

Like most Manitoba Métis, Mulligan thinks a historic family connection to the original Red River settlers is vital, and she has a genealogy done for her grandfather to confirm hers.

“At the same time, understanding the process of self-identification is a huge thing and I wouldn’t want to tell someone ‘No, you’re not Métis,’ ” said Mulligan. “That’s a really complicated thing.”

Mulligan and her mother haven’t yet gathered up their birth certificates and other paperwork, along with her grandfathers genealogy, and taken it to the Manitoba Métis Federation to get a card, largely because the process is a bit daunting.

“The other day, my mom said ‘I’m really glad you’ve waited because this is something I want to do with you, as a family,’ ” said Mulligan.

A Métis story: ‘I’m 100 per cent Métis’

When Janet La France was seven or eight, her mom sat her down and revealed a family secret. They were Métis.

“She said it wasn’t something that I should go spreading around,” remembered La France. “The reason I shouldn’t tell other people, or other kids, is that not everybody thought it was a good thing.”

Melissa Tait / Winnipeg Free Pre Janet La France's mother told her she was Métis when she was eight years old, but instructed her to keep it quiet. La France is a genealogist at the La Société historique de Saint-Boniface, where she often assists Manitobans searching for their Métis heritage.

If being Métis was a small slander to protect herself against back then, it’s still a source of frustration today, not because La France carries any shame but because so few Manitobans understand her heritage. People think the Métis are like unicorns. They’re not a real people. They don’t really exist.

“One of the classic things is people asking you “Oh, how Métis are you?” she said. “They mean, how Cree are you, or how Ojibway are you or how Assiniboine are you? If you tell them that your great-great-grandmother was 50 per cent, then their mind registers ‘oh well, you’re not that Métis…’ They don’t understand that a Métis person is not the sum of two parts.”

La France didn’t grow up with the stereotypical trappings of Métis culture — the jigging, the fiddling, the beaded folk-art. She grew up closer to her father’s French-Canadian heritage. But, the family went to Festival du Voyageur and her mother made sure she had a pile of kid’s books from Pemmican Publications, the Métis publisher.

And, through osmosis, she knew her grandfather, who died before she was born, was a natural storyteller and loved woodworking, traits she later associated with his Métis roots.

It wasn’t until La France was a teenager, and a product of the French school system, that she began to become more acutely aware of her background and her links to Louis Riel’s Métis nation.

“I was taught that Riel was a hero and martyr and the founder of our province,” said La France. “I had a friend in the English school system, exactly the same age, same grade, and she was taught he was a traitor who deserved to die. It was such disparity between the two.”

She laughs now at her teenage indignation. Years later, her mother got the family genealogy done at the St. Boniface’s centre du patrimoine, the archives where La France now works, researching the Métis ancestry of others just like her.

They traced La France’s grandfather’s family to the Red River settlement, to men who came over with the fur trading companies and stayed to become carpenters and canoe-builders — not big names like Riel or Grant, just average Métis Joes.

Along with her mother and sister, La France then applied for her Manitoba Métis Federation card, and her harvesting permit, even though she’s not really the type to go hunting or fishing.

The process of rediscovery is one thousands of young Métis people have made as they try to navigate one of the most complicated cultures in Manitoba, one defined by constant mixing, by mobility and by decades of camouflage.

That process was catapulted forward recently by the Supreme Court decision that found Manitoba’s Métis were the victims of swindles, delays and mismanagement in the years following the birth of the province in 1870, and never received thousands of acres of land they were due.

It’s a decision with unclear implications but that, for La France, reinforces the place of the Métis as one of Manitoba’s founding nations.

“A decision like this, even though I don’t think I will personally benefit, I’m interested in seeing how far have we come, really,” said La France. “Maybe people are not going to constantly make a visual assessment or ask me how Métis I am or quantify my blood or not really believe me or tell me the Métis don’t exist… I’m not the sum of two parts. I’m 100 per cent Métis.”

Timeline: The history of the Métis Nation in Manitoba

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