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Manitoba History No. 89
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No. 89

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Metis Nationalism: Then and Now

by Yvon Dumont

The Forks and the Battle of Seven Oaks in Manitoba History
Edited by Robert Coutts and Richard Stuart
Manitoba Historical Society, 1994. ISBN 0-921950-12-8

I am honoured to have been asked to address a conference of scholars on the topic of Metis nationalism. As you know I am not a scholar and my presentation will have to be put in a different category. That is nothing new for us Metis, of course, as we have always been put in different categories. I am here to talk to you about Metis Nationalism and I am glad to be able to do that and I am quite comfortable in doing that as I talk about that all the time. It’s not often though that Metis, and especially a non-scholar Metis, gets a chance to make some points to an audience of learned people.

Learned people, such as yourselves, are in such an advantaged position because you can pass on your views to so many other people in the course of your careers. Not only that, but you are privileged to be able to have as your audience the best and brightest minds of the community. And so you are able to influence the thinking of many of those who will come to be the important decision makers in the public life of Manitoba and of Canada. Given the rare opportunity that I have today to influence the thinking of such a privileged audience, I hope you will be kind enough to forgive me for taking advantage of my presentation to throw in a few incidental points that some of you scholars may decide are not entirely germane to my topic.

I’ll start right now by saying that I must qualify my statement about your audiences usually including the best and brightest minds of the community. My point is that Canadian society has not provided the Metis people with equal access to the benefits of an advanced education so it is that many of our best and brightest minds have never seen the inside of a university. I can assure you that some of the best story tellers, some of the best literary minds, some of the best philosophers that I have ever met are Metis people who happen to have very little formal education.

Let me turn now to my discussion on Metis Nationalism, and I suppose it is appropriate that my initial focus should be on the event that took place in North End Winnipeg a long time ago. I am confident that scholars will be digesting the events of La Grenouillere, or Seven Oaks, in some detail today. All I want to do is take an extract of a contemporary statement to show that the stresses and strains with colonial, and then Canadian, society have always been a factor that has worked to cement our collective identity as a people.

When we are attacked and often vilified by strangers the effect is of course to draw us together in order to better assert our own identity. I take the following statement from a small book published in London in 1817 which was re-published in 1970 as part of the Coles Canadiana Collection. There is stated, on page 87 in French, “Mr. Robertson said that we [the Metis] were blacks, and he shall see that our hearts will not belie the colour of our bodies”. So Robertson is saying that for them our hearts can be as black as our bodies. That is a rare reference in the literature to the term black that has continued to be used to refer to us, as well as the odious term “half-breed”. But we have been called worse things, as I shall come to show.

Metis cart brigade camped on the prairies, 1858
Source: Archives of Manitoba

I want to remind you that invective is invective, even if it falls from the mouth of an historian. Regardless of the fact that the Metis created a structure of Metis Nationalism in the early days, it has never been doubted, even by the main stream traditional historians, that by the time Manitoba joined the Canadian Federation, the Metis were a distinct nation in the West. Permit me to quote just briefly from the work of W. L. Morton, a University of Manitoba historian, whose works are better known to you than to me. “The new nation was a unique ethnic and political reality”, he wrote, “brought from the continental fur trade and it was not aware both of its uniqueness and of its dependence on the old way of life and also its need to adapt itself to the changes which had been foreseen for at least a decade before 1869.” The same author said that the Canadian government had no idea that it was dealing with a corporate entity, a new nation. That point was of course driven home to the Canadian officials, by L’abbe Ritchot, the special negotiator for the Metis, and as a consequence provision was made in Section 31, of the Manitoba Act, for a community land settlement scheme. I will return later to discuss the significance of that provision.

It is in the great events surrounding the creation of Manitoba that historians have traced the role of Louis Riel, one of the great figures of Metis history and Metis nationalism. Riel is one of the great figures of Canadian and Manitoba history because of his role as the Founder of the province and so one of Canada’s Fathers of Confederation.

Historians have also traced the role of Riel in the events surrounding the patriotic Battle of Batoche in 1885. And out of these roles they have asked themselves the simplistic question, was Riel a hero or a traitor? It isn’t as if history could resolve itself by giving simple answers to simple questions that might force a yes or no answer. Unfortunately, this is the stuff that is fed to our children and to yours in the schools of today. No wonder there is a need to re-examine the Canadian identity today. Identity is, of course, very much defined by one’s conception of the past and so one should not be at all surprised if Louis Riel means for the Metis something that is not shared by others. The fact is that to the Metis, Louis Riel is very important. He is very important because he is a significant part of our sense of nationalism and a sense of nationalism is derived and developed, not upon a pedantic examination of historical minutia, but rather upon the crystallization of an idealized antiquity. That is so for the Metis people, as it is for all peoples.

A national movement develops as an expression of the political will of the people. The expressions of nationalism and the political will that we are seeing in Eastern Europe today are certainly not movements that have resulted directly from the tidy conclusions of national historians. They are the untidy expressions of peoples’ political will. This is not to say that an examination of history has no role to play in the maintenance of a national identity. It has. When we consider the history, as it has been written by your historians however, we see many reasons to be concerned. First of all there is a pattern of undiluted racism that comes across in much of the writing. It is very hard to come to see ourselves as part of one Canadian nation when Canadian history either ignores us in defining the soul of the nation, or else vilifies us in praising the glory of their own national accomplishments.

Let me just give you just one small example of what I regard as a racist historical view of Metis people. It is taken from the work of Marcel Giraud, the French social scientist who is widely regarded, I am told, as the one who has written the best accounts of the story of the Metis. The extent to which he is revered can be gauged, I suppose, by the fact that one of the most recent books published locally on the Metis has a full page photograph of Giraud at the front of it. The example I want to use is taken from an article written in 1937. It dealt with the Metis who lived away from the Red River at the time in two small villages, one of which was St. Laurent on the southeast shore of Lake Manitoba. It so happens that St. Laurent is my home town, and the place which I still call home. “Tiny villages like these”, stated Giraud, “are now occupied by very backward groups”. Here he stated that “the mental traits of the Metis appear as incompletely developed as their biological composition. As soon as severe intellectual discipline is required the mixed bloods give up every exertion”. Giraud, of course, tried to throw in a few qualities, probably realizing that no one would believe that an entire people can be all bad. “They have an acute sense of observation”, [he wrote] “which allied with their artistic mind explains their curious gift for drawing.”

Louis Riel, 1868
Source: National Archives of Canada

Now, having had such drivel driven home to them from their school days, how are our children expected to stand tall and to insist on taking their p lace in the sun, along with the children of immigrants, in order to forge one national vision. The fact is that we have been poorly served by historians. Not only us but all of Canada. The spirit of Canada is poorer today, partly because of the drivel that has been used to forge a national identity. How can you forge a proud and true national identity based on denigrating other peopIe? Where historians have not vilified us they have ignored us. Everyone has heard of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of 1991. How many of you, however, have heard of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of 1881 in Manitoba? That one dealt with the dispossession of Metis infant land and it only came to light in recent years as a result of a land claims research project conducted by the Manitoba Metis Federation.

I am glad to be able to say that in recent years some historians have started, through their investigations, to give the country a truer version of the history of Canada and of the Metis. The work of Professor Doug Sprague, in leading the research of the Manitoba Metis Federation is notable, along with subsequent publications derived from that work, and his more recent endeavours. Professor Nichole St. Onge at the College St. Boniface, has also done a lot of work researching the history of the Metis. Some of what she has uncovered in the archives has corroborated some of our own oral history. That is pretty exciting stuff.

I want to make one point clear. I am not for one moment suggesting that historians should go out and try to create a version of history that better suits contemporary outlooks. What I have tried to demonstrate is that racist attitudes have infested historical writing. I am aware of the dangers of attempting to rewrite history which would inevitably be described by the media as an attempt, for example, to upgrade Riel and to downgrade John A. MacDonald. Let the system redress the social and economic imbalance that has kept our children out of university. Let us develop Metis historians and other scholars. The writing of history is crafted by human beings and must never be regarded as a truly scientific or objective craft. I am sure that the telling of our story by Metis historians is bound to create a better vision of Canada for all of us.

So we are not looking to rewrite history. But we may be looking at writing some unwritten chapters of history. Then we could insert those chapters into the history books of our school system so that our children can learn Metis history from the Metis perspective. And not just our children, but everybody’s children; your children, your grandchildren, my grandchildren, so that we can all have a better understanding of where we all come from, where we all are and why we are where we are. I think it would help to build a greater understanding of each other and it would be a better ingredient for building a better and more understanding Canadian society in general.

After that tangent I would like to return to the consideration of Metis Nationalism. I have left that consideration at the point where it had been agreed, by everyone, that in the second half of the nineteenth century Metis nationalism existed as a fact in Western Canada. The conventional wisdom is that after 1885, when many of our people escaped to the United States in search of a better place in society, and the rest of us were marginalized and abused, that Metis nationalism effectively ended. Well it may have been muted somewhat, but it certainly did not die. Strong feelings of Metis identity have always remained amongst our people wherever they may be found. We should not to be confused with the Aboriginal peoples who have been referred to as “Indians”, and we certainly are not Europeans. In the entire history of Canada, Metis nationalism may have been strongly manifested only now and then. But the expression of Metis nationalism never died. I will only give two examples from my own experience.

Pascal Breland, a Metis magistrate in the White Horse Plains district, member of the Council of Assiniboia, and the first Legislature Assembly of Manitoba, and between 1872 and 1887 a member of the Council of the North-West Territories.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The first is an extract from an original document a draft petition written by the people of St. Laurent Manitoba in 1908 and addressed to the federal government. This is the community where I come from, and people ask me today when we take our case to court; “Well how come you waited a hundred years?” There were petitions sent to the government all along. One was in 1908 and it comes from my own community. It reads in part:

Since 1870, the government has flooded both Manitoba and the Northwest with immigrants from all parts of the world. The government has given large tracks of land to railway companies, who are making millions of dollars on them. All those millions are the proceeds of the land which is our inheritance. Our forefathers have fought and shed their blood to defend and preserve that inheritance. Now today we are robbed of it and our children are driven out like buffalo, which has now disappeared from the prairies. That inheritance was deeded to us by our forefathers and sealed with their blood. It is our inalienable right which no civilized nation can deny. Misery, discontent, sorrow and war are the results of injustice. In evidence of the above we make mention of the Northwestern Rebellion and the Boer War.

This is the Metis of my community writing to the Government of Canada. We waited all these years and now people wonder why it is that we want to take the government to court on this very issue. It is because we haven’t been listened to and we have never had the resources before to be able to take it to court. The government now is using all of the Canadian resources against the Metis of Western Canada, who are still of limited means. They are trying to break us in a sense that they think if they keep us fighting over technicalities long enough that we are going to run out of money. Well what they don’t know is that we didn’t have any money to start with. But we’ve got a heck of a good lawyer. How about that for an expression of Metis nationalism. How about that for a version of history that our children could take pride in and use as a basis for the kind of security that would permit them to stand shoulder to shoulder with the children of immigrants to craft together a better version of Canadian society.

My second example comes from a short trip that I took a few years ago to a small place in North Dakota called Belcourt. It was named after a missionary and an Indian reservation is located there. However, all the residents of that American Indian reservation are not Chippewa, as they are called in the United States. Many of them are Mitchif. They are our relatives from the Red River. They are the descendants of Metis people who have been travelling back and forth across the international boundary, ever since the boundary was erected, and who were moving back and forth in that area long before the boundary was established. Those Mitchif people have a very strong sense of national identity. They know they are one with us. But they strongly dislike this Canadian anglicized version of “Metis”. They told me personally “You keep that word Metis up there north of the border, because down here we are Mitchif”. Those Mitchif people in Belcourt have done a lot to advance their identity. They have courses in Mitchif history in their colleges, as well as courses in the Mitchif language. What do we have here on the north side of the line?

Metis hunter at Red River photographed by H. L. Hime, 1858
Source: National Archives of Canada

The resurgence of public manifestations of Metis nationalism in recent times in Canada has occurred along with a general resurgence of nationalism amongst Aboriginal peoples, not only in the rest of the country, but around the world. Witness the formation of various Aboriginal political organizations in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Metis organizations were born here in Western Canada some of them in the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s and they got together and formed the Native Council of Canada in the early 1970s. I was a founding Vice-President of the Native Council of Canada in 1972. But as we invited other provincial organizations of non-status Indians to join the Native Council of Canada, we soon began to lose our identity. The whole drive of the Native Council of Canada seems to be on Indian Rights and the Metis were beginning to be lost. So in 1983 we withdrew from the Native Council of Canada, not because we didn’t support their initiative, because we did. They were right in what they were trying to do, but the issues of the Metis were being left out and were put on the back burner, so to speak. So the Metis National Council was born. Today I am also the spokesman for the Metis National Council.

The Metis were instrumental in setting up the World Council of Indigenous People. That was another fellow, one of those backwards people from St. Laurent, Manitoba, who was biologically not developed, I suppose. His name was Guy LaVallee, Father Guy LaVallee, and one who had been its president, the President of the World Council of Indigenous People, and that’s Clem Chartier.

Metis nationalism like the nationalism of other Aboriginal peoples continues to face serious obstacles. Although the United Nations has recognized that social harmony is best promoted by the recognition of the rights of all distinct people to self-determination, the practice has not favoured the equal application of the principal to the Aboriginal peoples who are caught as enclave populations within national boundaries.

We are not in a position to rent the country apart, as is being done in the former Yugoslavia. Look at how quickly the tanks were brought out against the Mohawks last summer. Look at how quickly we were shot and plundered in 1885. We can only try to appeal to Canada’s sense of justice. We can only appeal to you to apply to us the same principles that you apply to all peoples and that you apply to yourselves. You recognize the right of self-determination for people in far-off lands and you recognize the right of self-determination for the Quebecois, because there is a political boundary drawn around them. I notice in Manitoba we are so quick to say that if Quebec was to separate from Canada that they could not take all that land because all of northern Quebec belongs to the Aboriginal peoples. But we are not so quick to recognize that fact in northern Manitoba. I don’t see much difference. But because we have no boundary you deny us the right that you claim for yourselves and your children. It is shameful to note that we had a boundary but that you took it away.

The Manitoba Act of 1870, in Section 31, provided for the establishment of a community land base to permit us to survive as a people. But the governments of Manitoba and Canada took that boundary away from us by unlawful action. We are fighting that battle in Canada’s own courts today, which again underscores the weak position that we are in. At the same time we have chosen the gentle and persuasive approach. We are not expressing our nationalism out of the barrels of rifles. We are expressing our nationalism by trying to show you that justice demands that your sense of nationalism will always be tainted if it does notdo justice to us. Our general approach is not being quickly rewarded. While world attention is being focused on the situation of the Mohawks, the Federal and Provincial Governments are using all of their resources to attack our case in the courts, delaying and stalling with every conceivable legal technicality. These actions help us to build our sense of national identity and I do not like the picture that is portrayed. Neither do I like the picture of Canadian society that is portrayed by those academic writers who are making a career of attacking our endeavours by using tactics that should shame any nation.

One day I hope we will have the respect of the children of immigrants. That day will come after you have learned to show respect by using capital letters to write words like Aboriginal and Metis. This, our scholars have pointed out to us.

In advancing the cause of Metis nationalism, we aim to advance the cause of Canadian nationalism. A local scholar who worked for a while with the Manitoba Metis Federation has written a small book about the reformulation of the Metis identity. What we the Metis aim to do now, in the context of the national unity debate, is to urge a new vision of Canadian nationalism. We want to urge the reformulation of the Canadian identity. It is not going to be easy. It will not be easy to cast off the effects of the vilification of the Metis by generations of Canadian scholars. The reformulation of the Canadian identity is caught up in a process of constitutional reform and is complicated by the new factor of significant symbolic value that the constitution of Canada has now taken. The symbolism that is required by the Quebecois and other groups, is going to have to make room for the symbolic expression of the nationalism of the Metis and other Aboriginal peoples.

Unidentified Metis settlers from St. Francois-Xavier, Manitoba, circa 1880
Source: Archives of Manitoba

What of Metis nationalism then and now. Metis nationalism then was a part of a great continental movement. When new peoples were advancing across the North American continent they looked to establish for themselves a proper place in the emerging national political institutions. Metis nationalism now is part of a larger movement. It is part of a world-wide movement where people are asking anew the basic question: What is a country for? The shrinking physical and economic world is forcing the design of new political institutions to provide collective security that flows from a distinct culture and a unique historical inheritance. Now that the world has become smaller the stage on which Metis nationalism is being played out has become larger than it was then.

So many people have lost their identity. But we continue to push that dream that our ancestors had, even the dream from my home community where they were sending petitions to the Federal government to try and enforce their rights to land. A couple of years ago I was speaking in a community not far from Winnipeg and one young Metis man carne to see me afterwards, and he said “You know I always wondered what I was and where I fit in”. He said “My father spoke French but I wasn’t French. My mother spoke Cree but we weren’t Indians, and we all spoke English but we weren’t English and today,” he said, “I found myself.” It was very important to that young man, he found out and he began to identify with the Metis. Today he is on the board of directors of the Manitoba Metis Federation.

Last weekend I attended a conference Parksville, British Columbia. Parksville is just a few miles north of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island and it was there that about 100 Metis had gathered. We were told, of course, that there were no Metis there, but we found out that there are quite a few of them. And one young man came to see me and said “I have my ancestors from Winnipeg, or from Manitoba”. He was adopted out when he was young, just a few weeks old. He was raised by a family that wasn’t Metis and he was raised to be racist against Indians and especially the Metis because the Indians knew their place, but the Metis, they were kind of wild, he was told. He didn’t know he was a Metis and as he grew up and he suddenly realized that he was a different colour than the people that he had grown up with. Finally they told him that he was adopted. Earlier on this year, he began looking for his roots and he found out that he was a Metis and he then joined the Metis Association and they found his mother. They sent his mother a letter saying that they’d found her son and if she wanted to contact him they could give them the phone number. The mother was seventy-one years old and she was afraid to call her own son because she didn’t know what the reaction would be. She had been ill when she was young and she had lost all her children and then three years later when she was able to look after them again, she went looking for them and she found every one of them except the young man. They had told her that he had been adopted out already, there was nothing they could do. But he said that he found out later that he wasn’t adopted until 1957 and so they lied to her in 1951 when they said he was already adopted out. But he said, “Finally my mother phoned me and she said “Do you know who this is speaking?” And he replied “Yes, you’re my mother.” So he chatted with his mother and she said “I feel like I just had a baby. They sent me a picture of you and you look like your brothers. You look like your family.” He said, “I sat there on the phone and I had tears in my eyes. It never happened to me before. Suddenly I belonged. I was a Metis and I found that out and now I found my family.” That sense of belonging, of knowing where you come from, where your roots are is very, very important. As we travel throughout Canada we find that Metis nationalism is still there, and still very strong.

Page revised: 31 October 2014

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