Manitoba History: Review Essay: Nationalist Perspectives, Jacqueline Peterson and Jennifer S. H. Brown (editors), The New Peoples: Being and Becoming Métis in North America & Gerry Andrews, Métis Outpost: Memories of the First Schoolmasters at the Métis Settlement of Kelly Lake, BC & Walter Hildebrandt, The Battle of Batoche: Small Warfare and the Entrenched Métis & Don McLean, 1885: Métis Rebellion or Government Conspiracy?
by Nicole J. M. St. Onge
Writing on the history of the Métis in the last half century has been characterized by a nationalist approach. The majority of historians in the field today still concern themselves with the questions of when and how a “people” came into being. This emphasis is reflected, to varying degrees, by the four works examined here in which the whole process of Métissage and the development of Métis communities are perceived as concurrent with a certain degree of “consciousness-raising.” To be Métis is to be a member of La Nation or, more accurately, Les Nations. This nationalist paradigm will be questioned in this review.
Métis Outpost by former school teacher Gerry Andrews is an insightful glimpse into the small, early 20th century Métis community of Kelly Lake (B.C.) and, inadvertently perhaps, into a young white man’s reaction to it. The introduction provides a traditional interpretation of Red River Métis history with some remarkably eurocentric asides: “The propitious formation of the North West Mounted Police (1873) gave a significant measure of protection to Indians, Métis and Whites” (p. 10). This introduction is included because Andrews speaks of Kelly Lake residents as the descendants of Red River French Métis vis Alberta’s Lake, Sainte-Anne, and Flyinshot Lake settlements, even though he has difficulty making the genealogical link-ages for some of the major French and Iroquois families. What is important from the perspective of the nationalist interpretation of Métis history is that nothing in Andrew’s recollections indicates that the people of the Kelly Lake settlement saw themselves as a “nation” or a “people apart”; in fact, he notes that the residents always referred to themselves as “breeds” not Métis. The description of the settlement as being somehow part of the French Métis “nation” is therefore an assertion not substantiated by the author’s memories of the largely Cree-speaking inhabitants.
This book could have benefited from better editing and from comments from historians and anthropologists versed in native history. Ethnocentrism creeps in uncomfortably often. At one point when discussing offers of sexual liaisons made to him by some local woman, Andrews makes the startling comment that “need it be affirmed that I forewent this intimate form of instruction? With their French background, one had to be careful!” (p. 35)
Don McLeans’s 1885: Métis Rebellion or Government Conspiracy? postulates that the intrigues of the Canadian government and the Hudson’s Bay Company explain the defeat of the Métis in the second “Riel Rebellion.” He argues that, by 1885, the speculators who formed the elite of Prince Albert required a rebellion in order to stimulate the local economy, and that the federal government needed something akin to full-scale war in the West to salvage its original plans for the development of Canada. According to the author, provocative action vis-a-vis the Métis populations of the North West Territories were key variables in creating the desired disturbances.
McLean, true to a nationalist paradigm, views the French Métis as a people distinct from the Indians and the English halfbreeds. The Métis were to become necessary martyrs for the creation of a Canadian West. Members of the doomed collective are portrayed as uniformly French-speaking with an egalitarian community-oriented world-view. One problem with McLean’s use of this perspective is that socio-economic and ideological differences within the French Métis population are glossed over. A second is that the systematic differentiations he makes among the Indian, French and English populations are inherent to, but not explained by, his analysis.
This conspiracy argument is intriguing and at a certain level probably correct. Government and Hudson’s Bay Company officials were undoubtedly shrewd enough to capitalize on opportunities that advanced their interests. But to explain Les Evenements of 1885 on such a narrow basis does an injustice to both the Métis and the capitalists involved. Historians of the Métis should remember that nationalist uprisings were common among peoples in many parts of the world who suffered from the expansion of nation-states. To blame the tragedy of 1885 on the greed and ambitions of a handful of men is to isolate and belittle the event vis-a-vis the larger question of how our society is organized.
The New People: Being and Becoming Métis in North America, edited and introduced by J. Peterson and J. Brown, includes some of the best articles yet published from a nationalist perspective. An introduction tackles the theoretical strengths and weaknesses of the concept of nationalism and suggests historical contents conducive to the development of nations. The articles are divided into four thematic sections. The first of these sections deals with the development of a Métis population in the North American interior from the days of New France to the early 19th century. The authors discuss the issue of Métis origins and some of the possible reasons for the emergence of ethnic formations based on Métissage. One interesting, if not fully convincing, article in this section is J. Foster’s “The Problem of Métis Roots,” in which he advocates the applicability of F. Barth’s work on ethnic groups and boundaries to early Métis history.
Part two grapples with the realization that “Métis peoples have had diverse origins and histories, forming a variety of distinctive communities in widely separate areas of the north” (p. 9), but that at some point there emerged a collective Métis identity. An exception to the nationalist perspective of other articles in this section is found in Irene Spry’s “The Métis and the mixed bloods of Rupert’s Land before 1870.” Spry calls for analysis of Red River society in terms of socio-economic classifications, rather than racial, religious or linguistic ones. Section three contains articles which discuss the overall impact of the 19th century social, economic, and ideological penetration into the North American interior by expanding nation-states. The authors examine the pressure borne by the Métis populations and their reaction to them on individual, community, but not class, levels. Part four deals with what could be called Métis culture, and especially with the difficulty of defining a “Métis” art and language when the Métis are a heterogeneous population.
Walter Hildebrandt’s The Battle of Batoche: British Small Warfare and the Entrenched Métis, is worth acquiring just for the quality of its introductory and concluding (Part II) sections. Precise writing and perceptive analysis make this study a pleasure to read. The body of the work is made up of a detailed narrative of the crucial days of the confrontation: 9-12 May, 1885. The interpretations found in this section are disappointingly restrained. However, this may have more to do with Parks Canada directives than with the predilections and talents of the author.
Interestingly, Hildebrandt does not put much explanatory weight on the concept of nationhood. He also does not treat the Métis at Batoche as a homogeneous society, as do many of those of the nationalist school. Instead he examines the nature of the stratification that existed within the region’s population to explain why hunters and traders reacted differently to the events of 1885. As the author points out, many members of the commercial class were absent during the battle and the bulk of Riel’s followers were involved in seasonal activities such as hunting, trapping, farming, and freighting that were directly threatened by surveyors and settlers.
Hildebrandt is one of the few authors that carefully places the events of 1885 in a national and international context. In the introduction he states (p. 8)
Also, in the conclusion, Hildebrandt situates Middleton’s, Riel’s, and Dumont’s military actions in the context of 19th century British and Native guerilla warfare. This sheds new interpretive light on the four days of the battle and hints at the larger implications of the rebellion.
With the exception of Hildebrandt’s, the works under review are examples of research premised on a nationalist paradigm. Using this framework, several of the authors have produced intriguing discussions on the mechanisms behind the development of an awareness of collective identity premised on the concept of Métissage. One cannot dispute that the rise of a nationalist ideology is probably the most obvious and spectacular line of defence to be used by geographically-specific heterogeneous populations subjected to the dislocation of their social and economic environments. And, as several writers have argued, large segments of the native populations of the North American interior were under considerable disruptive pressure in the 19th and 20th centuries. Documenting and explaining their collective responses certainly has brought a valuable contribution to our body of knowledge on the Métis. However, one cannot help wondering what crucial aspects of Métis history have been neglected by the use of this paradigm?
It is my contention that Métis history needs to be reformulated. A new paradigm should be developed that does not see nationalism as the crucial determinant of these people’s history. The nationalist approach has difficulty dealing with the complex internal structures, tensions, and conflicts found among the Métis populations. Also, it does not adequately deal with the nature and complexity of the class-based articulations between core and peripheral populations of British and French North America. In my view the reassessment of these regions’ and peoples’ history(ies) should aim at two things: 1) a long-range examination of differing patterns of socio-economic regional penetrations of the hinterlands by Canadian or American capitalists and, 2) an analysis of the hinterland populations which acknowledges the existence of a multitude of often inherently contradictory interests. Nationalism is a powerful ideological tool that subsumes more constant antagonisms and incompatibilities in the face of collective oppressions and threats. However, its existence should not blind the researcher to the possibilities of more fundamental developments which different approaches, such as one using a marxist perspective, might uncover.
Page revised: 7 September 2009Back to top of page