The arrival of new players is stirring up tension with established Métis groups and raising concern among First Nations leaders
The scent of burning sage lingers in the air as drummers begin a song of welcome. They are traditions dating back centuries, but on this Sunday afternoon the ceremony opens a gathering of one of the country’s youngest Aboriginal groups — the two-year-old Wobtegwa Métis clan.
The meeting, held in a high school auditorium, has brought together members from a corner of Quebec stretching northeast from Montreal past Quebec City and south to the United States border. Some of those present have long known of their Indigenous roots; for others the discovery has come recently. But they have all come together to push for government recognition of their rights.
“This clan is sovereign on its territory,” Yves Cordeau, band chief for the Lac-Mégantic region informs the group.
If the claim comes as news to many in Quebec, it’s because the province’s Métis awakening is recent. Raynald Robichaud, the Wobtegwa’s clan chief, says even members of his own family discouraged him from returning to his Aboriginal roots. “We knew we had a great-grandmother who was aboriginal, but our family absolutely did not want to talk about it, because they were afraid,” he says. “For us now, the fear is gone, and people are coming back.”
According to the latest census numbers, make that coming back in droves. Between 2006 and 2016 the number of Métis increased by 51 per cent, with the most pronounced spikes in Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. Demographers say natural growth explains only a fraction of this increase. “Put simply, more people are newly identifying as Aboriginal on the census,” states Statistics Canada’s report.
Checking a box on a census or connecting to family heritage is one thing. But as groups like the Wobtegwa lay claim to special services and territorial rights — in some cases, the same land as other Aboriginal groups — a backlash to the influx of new Métis is emerging. Some critics question the motivation of those who “become” Métis, and the impact of their activism on more established groups. Others question the right to self-identify at all.
Last month, for example, two professors posted a scathing piece on “self-indigenization,” or “becoming” Indigenous, on the website The Conversation. The “meteoric rise” of Métis in eastern Canada, wrote Darryl Leroux, of St. Mary’s University in Halifax, and Adam Gaudry, of the University of Alberta, is mostly due to white Québécois and Acadians using “long-ago ancestors to reimagine a ‘Métis’ identity.” These new Métis are “deeply invested in the settler status quo,” they added, and could undermine the sovereignty of First Nations in Quebec and the Maritimes.
Leroux, Gaudry and organizations representing western Métis maintain that mixed ancestry alone does not make one Métis. True Métis — as recognized by the Constitution as one of Canada’s three aboriginal groups — must have roots in Manitoba’s historic Red River settlement, they say. That can include Métis all the way west to British Columbia and into Ontario, but not as far east as Quebec and the Maritimes.
Chris Andersen, dean of the University of Alberta faculty of native studies, shares that view. The wave of people identifying as Métis because they have one or two Indigenous ancestors somewhere in their family tree do a disservice to “legitimately Indigenous people” who have been separated from their communities and are trying to reconnect, he says. “Métis identity is not a soup kitchen. It’s not open for people to come whenever they feel some hunger for belonging.”
The impression that Métis identity is there for the taking is in part because of the Supreme Court of Canada. Two key decisions — Powley in 2003 and Daniels in 2016 — were seen to expand the scope of who is considered Métis. Powley, which involved members of a Métis community near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., established a three-part test to determine Métis status in order to assert Aboriginal rights under the Constitution. The court ruled that one must identify as a Métis person; be a member of a present-day Métis community; and, have ties to a historic Métis community.
After Powley, new Métis groups sprung up in eastern Canada, but so far none have managed to have their Aboriginal rights recognized by a court. The Daniels decision, however, which recognized the Métis as “Indians” to whom the federal government has a fiduciary duty, contained a paragraph that breathed new life into their aspirations.
“There is no consensus on who is considered Métis or a non-status Indian, nor need there be,” the court wrote. “Cultural and ethnic labels do not lend themselves to neat boundaries. ‘Métis’ can refer to the historic Métis community in Manitoba’s Red River Settlement or it can be used as a general term for anyone with mixed European and Aboriginal heritage.” For eastern Métis, proof of the latter is enough. Their organizations typically accept anyone who can provide a genealogical chart showing an Indigenous ancestor.
Denis Gagnon, a professor at Université de Saint-Boniface in Winnipeg and former Canada Research Chair on Métis identity, says those in the west who claim they are “the only real Métis” are hypocritical. They fail to acknowledge how their own ranks have swollen in the last 15 years. “Every day I meet people who have a Métis card but do not have the culture,” he says. “They know a little bit of history. The expression they use is that they are non-practicing. It’s like a religion.”
Undoubtedly, part of the draw of Indigenous identity is the rights and benefits it is seen to confer. The meeting of the Wobtegwa grew lively when discussion turned to which stores accept their membership cards and deduct the provincial sales tax. News that the Wal-Mart in Lac-Mégantic accepts the cards caused a stir, but others reported most other shops yielded no discount. Cordeau explained that members would have to be patient until the federal government or the courts officially recognize their Aboriginal status. And he warned a woman who said she had her new car delivered to a First Nations reserve to avoid paying tax that she could be tracked down for fraud.
For us now, the fear is gone, and people are coming back
Georges Champagne, who says he joined the Wobtegwa because his family has Algonquin roots, has more basic needs than saving money on a new car. He opens his mouth wide to show a discoloured molar. “I’ve got a rotten tooth, but I can’t get it removed because it costs too much,” he says, explaining that his treatment involves putting an aspirin on the tooth to dull the pain. He hopes official recognition by Ottawa will provide dental benefits like those offered to First Nations and Inuit people.
Gagnon acknowledges that some of the people claiming Métis status in Quebec may be opportunists. But in an interview he says he believes others “are proud of their identity of mixed ancestry … and now they are fighting for their rights. It’s legitimate.”
His position is forcefully rejected by St. Mary’s University’s Leroux, who in a September lecture at the Université de Montréal called the existence of a distinct Quebec Métis people “a myth.” He accused Gagnon and other like-minded researchers of “rewriting history” and “creating an Aboriginal identity for a colonizing people.”
In his interview with National Post, Gagnon counters that Leroux is spreading “hatred” toward eastern Métis.
Relations are hardly more cordial between eastern Métis and their First Nations cousins. In Nova Scotia, Greg Burke, chief of the Bras d’Or Lake Métis Nation, says his group’s 250 members and the thousands of other Nova Scotia Métis deserve the same benefits as the province’s Mi’kmaq. He belittles Mi’kmaq reserves as “welfare states” and says Mi’kmaq leaders claim exclusive Aboriginal rights in Nova Scotia because they do not want to share the millions they receive from Ottawa. “This is all about money at the end of the day,” he says.
Some eastern Métis have gone so far as to present themselves as the true descendants of Canada’s first inhabitants. In a 2007 presentation to Quebec’s Bouchard-Taylor commission, Métis organizations from Gaspé and the Eastern Townships described themselves as “the only direct descendants of Quebec’s First Peoples.” They said “the most miserable” were forced onto reserves, where they succumbed to disease, but the Métis took to the bush and “refused to die on ‘your’ reserves.” It is a message echoed by Cordeau at the Wobtegwa meeting, who describes First Nations people as victims of forced immigration onto reserves. “We decided not to. We are still standing,” he tells the 90 people in attendance.
Ghislain Picard, Assembly of First Nations regional chief for Quebec, is not surprised the census shows more people claiming an Aboriginal identity in this era of reconciliation. “People want to find their identity. It is a very human reflex to want to trace your origins. In that sense it is a good sign,” he says. But he foresees conflict if Métis groups take it further and lay claim to land. “If the territory is claimed by more than one group, it doesn’t help our cause,” he says.
The phenomenon of indigenization is not all about claiming land or seeking tax breaks, of course. In her book Becoming Indian, Circe Sturm examines a similar trend in the United States, where the 2010 census recorded 577,000 more people identifying as Cherokee than there were members of the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes. What drove this new identification, she found in her interviews, was not economics.
They felt isolated. They felt wrapped up in the modern condition. There is a nostalgic longing for what being tribal means
“It’s almost a conversion narrative,” says Strum, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Their life before was empty of meaning. They felt isolated. They felt wrapped up in the modern condition. There is a nostalgic longing for what being tribal means.”
Also important is the “pull of indigeneity,” she says, which can be romanticized by people troubled by the historic mistreatment of Native Americans. “If you look at this settler-colonial history and you look at the dispossession of Indigenous people by white folks, which side do you want to be on? If they have multiple ancestry, they want to claim the side that makes them feel like they have an original relationship with the land and don’t have to be guilty for being here.”
Monique Tremblay came to the Wobtegwa meeting to sign up for a membership card after recently learning from a cousin that she has an Aboriginal ancestor four generations back. She sheepishly admits that as youngsters in Gaspé, she and her friends did not think well of the native people living on a nearby reserve. Today, she says, times have changed. “People think more highly of Aboriginals,” she says, “because we see that there were a lot of things done in the past that were not right