This is the second part in a 2-part series. Read Part 1 here.
Métis in Canada are a people with their own unique culture, traditions, way of life, collective consciousness and nationhood.
– Metis National Council’s website
After admitting I am mixed up, and suggesting that Joseph Boyden shares the same neurosis, I have sought to better understand the political and spiritual problems with evoking a métis identity in this country.
A recent journal article co-authored by Adam Gaudry and Darryl Leroux refers to the “evocation of Métissage,” a term they define as “the tactical use of long- ago racial mixing to reimagine a ‘Métis’ identity that prioritizes mixed-race ancestry and disregards the historical development of Métis peoplehood.”
The authors critique an emerging white settler revisionism, whereby Eastern metis groups are fashioning a new historical narrative that relegates western Métis to being secondary manifestations of mixed-race peoples in Canada. This bizarre and well-documented phenomenon is matched by census data cited in the same article. The practice of self-identifying as metis in Eastern Canada amounts, the authors say, to “making Métis everywhere.”
…since the inclusion of the Métis peoples as an Aboriginal people under section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, the number of “Métis” organizations and groups claiming Aboriginal rights has ballooned, particularly over the past decade and a half. For instance, Nova Scotia (at 900 percent) and New Brunswick (at 450 percent) had the largest increases over the three Canadian censuses between 1996 and 2006, and while this growth has levelled off, both Québec (at 47 percent) and Nova Scotia (at 31 percent) claim the highest provincial increases in Métis self-identification between 2006 and 2011.
The problem with racially generated metis
In Quebec and Nova Scotia, francophone and Acadian groups are making claims that create a fantasy whereby the new metis become what Gaudry describes as, “more Métis than the Métis.”
This is not a benign phenomenon. The authors cite numerous instances of these metis groups pitting their interests (as taxpayers!) against First Nations.
The Unama’ki Voyageur Métis Nation (UVMN) in Nova Scotia, for example, has railed publicly against the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs who, according to UVMN “…do not vote, don’t pay taxes, receive millions from the taxpayer, telling government how to run the province dictating Aboriginal Métis rights,[for Métis].”
Gaudry and Leroux conclude that “while these [métis] groups claim descent from an array of Indigenous peoples, they regularly denigrate and undermine Indigenous rights, imagining a superior Indigeneity to those whom they claim as relatives.”
I am not surprised. Solidarity among Indigenous nations doesn’t matter if you’re not really part of a nation, does it?
Settler Canadians must accept that citizens of the historic Metis Nation get to define who belongs and who doesn’t. The desire to identify as metis when one’s mixed-race ancestors lived and died in places far removed from Batoche or the Red River settlement represents a modern form of settler colonialism. Among its perpetrators is author John Ralston Saul, whose book A Fair Country posits that all Canadians are métis.
I know at the core of my being that Métis self-assertion challenged the Canadian nation-state’s sovereignty over Indigenous peoples and lands in the provinces now known as Manitoba and Saskatchewan. I agree with Gaudry when he writes that “Canadians cannot simply look within themselves to find their mythical Aboriginal core. Instead, they must engage in deeply meaningful relationships with actual Indigenous peoples.”
My metis mythology
To prove my link to a Métis community, thus meeting one of the tests for citizenry in the Métis Nation of Ontario, I glommed onto a report issued in 2001 by Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources. This 29-page research paper outlines the historic populations of mixed-race families in the Sudbury/Espanola region. My father’s family features in descriptions of the people that lived and died in Killarney, on the shores of Georgian Bay.
When my cousin’s daughter uncovered this report, I had the proof that I needed to be part of an organization that has since befuddled me. I don’t like the fact that the MNO is cozying up to oil, hydro and mining corporations. I don’t like its liberal stance on Indigenous sovereignty vis-a-vis provincial and federal levels of government. Will citizenship help me get more contracts with government agencies in my work as a writer and editor? So far, it hasn’t..
In any case, I do not belong to MNO because I want benefits. I signed up because I want to belong to an Indigenous nation.
Being part of a métis collectivity seemed to offer me a way to finally acknowledge my Indigenous ancestry. As a young woman, and through my early adulthood, I hid behind my Spanish roots to explain dark eyes and brown skin. I wanted to finally tell the truth about who I am.
The hard truths abound. Among my father’s siblings, only he and my aunt Adelaide abstained from alcohol. His sister, Barb, spent a dozen years in a coma in hospital after falling down a flight of stairs while drunk. Her hair turned white before she died. Dad’s younger brother, Lloyd, lived on the streets of Toronto with a brown bag and a bottle of hooch in hand.
Poverty, violent deaths, a child born to my beloved Aunt Nell after a white man raped her when she was 17. The death of my grandmother at age 38 from a childbirth infection that was undiagnosed and untreated. Death in a car crash of Aunt Nell’s daughter when the girl was barely 18. The stories in my father’s family have always spoken of pain and loss.
Untangling the desire for a new story
What does healing from ancestral traumas — and from some perpetrated in my own generation — require of me?
I wanted to tell a new story, and I thought that being claimed by an Indigenous collectivity like the MNO would allow that story to emerge. I see now that neither I nor Joseph Boyden can squirm our way into being Métis by means of a DNA test or a laminated card in our wallets.
I care more about personal integrity than about bio-racial identity and fantasy. I embrace my blood and all my ancestors, although I don’t feel as warm and fuzzy about the notion of Spanish conquistadors as I do about the Anishinabeg great-granny that I never met. My dad’s stories about Marie, and the photograph of her standing next to my grandfather when she was 79 and he was 55 (in 1933), help me to see important things in their faces. I see goodness and gentleness — and resilience.
I don’t care what Joseph Boyden does with his life. And I feel no judgment toward people who feel claimed and comfortable as part of the Métis Nation of Ontario. The displacement of Métis into northern Ontario and to points west of the mountains after the events of 1885 and earlier resistance against the Canadian state created a diaspora. But it’s one that I am not part of.
The poet David Whyte says that life is “the opening of eyes long closed, it is the vision of far off things, seen for the silence they hold; it is the heart, after years of secret conversing, speaking out loud in the clear air.”
I have spoken.
Debra Huron is a feminist, a mother, a wife, a writer, a tree lover, a baseball fan and one of millions of people living on the unceded territory of the Algonquin Nation in the Ottawa region. She thinks she might be able to get away with calling herself Anishinaabe-Kwe.