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The Metis: Contemporary Problem of Identity

by A. S. Lussier
Native Studies, Brandon University

Manitoba Pageant, Spring 1978, Volume 23, Number 3

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Minority groups within our contemporary Canadian society have become a phenomenon of study. Some minority groups are classified as immigrant groups, others such as the French are looked upon as an unique linguistic group who maintain that their language is their culture, [1] other minority groups such as the Metis of Alberta and the Indians of Canada have their identity legislated. [2] All of the aforementioned maintain their respective identities by some form or other, whether it be by language, customs, legislation, music, art, dance, conferences, etc. One group, however, seems to have taken on a conglomerate of customs, attitudes, etc. to form their own unique identity. These people are the Metis.

Historically, the Metis were the product of marriages between Indians and Whites in this country. Being the product of such unions, they developed a lifestyle and culture uniquely their own. Adapting from their two cultural ancestors, the Indians and Europeans, the Metis with the help of their Indian savvy and White technology, became a dominant force in the opening of the Canadian West. Their roles as traders, freighters, merchants, politicians, cart drivers, and translators have been documented in the many historical and sociological writings that now stand on the shelves of many libraries. Unfortunately, such a renowned reputation has passed them by because of their role in the two western Canadian insurrections of 1870 and 1885. If the Metis of Western Canada are remembered for anything at all, it has been for the insurrections. Perhaps that is why that to this day many Metis people, especially those who have integrated and/or assimilated with the French Canadians, still renounce their Metis identity. In his book, Exploitation of Metis Lands, Emile Pelletier tabulated the names of Metis people who were to receive land scrip in 1870. [3] Many of the names found in the tables are today considered French-Canadian names by the descendants of those who were to receive the scrip. This brief description serves to project the thesis of this paper - The Contemporary Problem of Metis Identity. Metis people are unique in that they can choose to identify in any possible way. A renowned Canadian historian once had asked me, "When is a Metis no longer a Metis?" I had answered, "When he/she no longer considers himself/herself as such."

For instance, being Indian and White, no matter how much blood of each race one has, (note Riel was 1/8 Indian blood) an individual could identify as an Indian, a Scot, a Frenchman, etc. or as a Metis.

Language often determines the group with which identification is to be made. Contemporarily some French-Metis will not recognize a Cree-speaking Metis as a Metis because he/she speaks an Indian language. On the other hand, the Cree-Metis looks upon the French-Metis as a French-Canadian. Then there is the Metis who speaks French and Cree and considers himself simply a Metis. Unfortunately, self-definition does not appear to be enough. One must be accepted within the Metis group. Hence, though one may identify as a Metis, he may not be acceptable to the Metis group with which he wants to identify. In other words, language, religion, blood-line, etc. could all have a bearing on whether or not that person is acceptable.

In 1958, Jean Lagasse did a study called People of Indian Ancestry in Manitoba. Twenty persons were invited to define what the terms Metis or Half-Breed meant to them. Here were his findings:

  1. Any person of mixed White and Indian blood having not less than one-quarter Indian blood but that does not include Indians as defined in the Indian Act nor non-treaty Indians.
  2. Half-Breeds are persons of Indian descent living in poor houses similar to those on the reserve, one-eighth being as far as I would go in searching for people of Indian background.
  3. Any full-blooded or half-blooded Indian who is not living as a White person. In this connection, the attitude of the White neighbours may force certain families to remain Half-Breeds longer than they would otherwise.
  4. A Half-Breed is a person who has some degree of Indian blood plus an upbringing which combines factors of primitive living usually in conjunction with a hunting and fishing economy. This applies even when these people have almost embraced the White way of life. A person with a similar degree of Indian blood is accepted into the Canadian way of life only when he conforms to all general requirements of this society; the degree of blood is not too important.
  5. People with Indian background who do menial tasks or are generally employed on part-time jobs. They usually live in poorer homes and have poorer standards of living. For example, I would not consider Mr. X as a Half-Breed because he is an office manager and a respected citizen in our community. [4]

From all this, one could very well assume and even suggest that though the information was tabulated in 1958, such ideas about Metis people persist today. [5] What the informants suggested respecting Metis people were the following:

  1. one is a Metis if aside from physical characteristics the person lives in poor housing;
  2. does not live as a White person;
  3. lives like the Indians;
  4. performs menial tasks;
  5. has a poor standard of living. [6]

Interestingly enough, many Metis people believed what they had been told was required of them to be Metis. In other words, if they had a decent job, did not live like the Indians, performed administrative tasks, and had a good standard of living, they would no longer be Metis according to the dominant society. The other problems presented by the aforementioned are the peer pressures. For a Metis to go up the economic ladder meant social ostracism of trying to be better than the others. Because of this, many of the older generation did not seek better education or economic opportunities, but instead sought advancement for their children.

The 1960s marked a sharp increase in the number of Metis students graduating from high schools in Manitoba. However, not until this time did they graduate as Metis. [7] What led to their willingness to admit their heritage was a sudden surge of Metis nationalism, fostered in students by the media and liberal-minded teachers. They were encouraged to identify with a romantic past. As people recalled the days of sugar beet topping and cucumber picking with nostalgia, students increasingly developed a new sense of pride in the fact that their fathers were trappers, loggers, or construction workers; they were no longer so ready to deny their past.

In many instances, their awareness of themselves as a distinct group was sharpened as Indians began to disassociate from the Metis for political and for economic reasons. [8] Other factors such as language, physical appearance, surname, background of usual associates or friends, behaviour, and occupation also contributed to their identification as Metis.

But along with the genuine pride that emerged as a result of cultural awareness, there grew a pseudo-Metis nationalism on the part of individuals who fitted the stereotypical image of what a Metis or Indian should look like. To them, being Metis was not good enough. By emphasizing their Indian background, they were negating their unique status, and in effect, promoting pan-Indianism.

What this romantic attachment has led to, it would seem, is a contemporary identification of a Metis based on heredity and way of life - or has it? Today a Metis is defined as:

  1. a person of mixed blood - Indian and European (no matter what amount) [9]
  2. one who considers himself as a Metis
  3. an enfranchised Indian - one who has given up his/ her treaty rights [10]
  4. one who received land scrip during the 1870s [11]
  5. one who is identified with a group that identifies as Metis
  6. a native but not a registered Indian
  7. in some Manitoba Metis Federation locals, a non-native can belong to the M.M.F. provided he/she is married to a Metis. For the sake of administrative records of the organization, that person is counted as a Metis. [12]

The problem with all these definitions is that they serve to create disunity instead of unity. A review of each definition will reveal my point.

Definition (a) does not take into account the different language groups that have developed from such marriages. Most people tend to identify more closely with their maternal language, and from it derive their cultural heritage. Hence, as already mentioned, a Cree-speaking Metis living on the fringes of a reserve would logically identify more closely with his/her Indian back-ground. On the other hand, a French-speaking mixed blood could identify with the French-Canadians. The alternative to both is to identify as Metis. It is interesting to note here that one could identify with a particular ethnic group: one on the basis of race, the other on the basis of language. To complicate matters more, mixed blood people who live close to reserves are viewed by society as Indians though they may not identify as such. There are, how-ever, some who do identify with the Indians and as such become non-status people to other Metis.

As already stated, (b) does not take into account group acceptability and identification. This type of identification oftentimes depends on linguistic and blood lines. It does not follow that a Metis will be accepted in another Metis community because he/she says he/she is Metis - language barriers could very well alienate that person from the group. The other problem created by (b) is the old argument: (1) you are Indian by European standards, (2) you are White by Indian standards.

Point (c) does not relate the fact that full-blooded Indians can enfranchise and are thus no longer by law considered Indian. However, by definition those persons are not Metis. [13] Since they cannot identify with the Whites and since they often are not acceptable to either the Indians or the Metis, a new group has evolved to take them under its wing - Non-Status Associations.

It is interesting to note, however, that many reserves in Manitoba are in reality populated by people of mixed blood who are by law Indian.

Point (d) is rather ambiguous because in 1870 a Metis was defined as one who could prove he/she was the descendant of a European - in other words, the emphasis was on the white blood line. Of course, the absence of your ancestor's name on the 1871 Census respecting land grants doesn't mean you are not a Metis today.

Points (e), (f), and (g) have already been explored within the context of this paper.

Acceptance of all of these definitions on the part of the Metis present an unique identity and unity crisis for them. Parochialism, language, regional-ism, and politics have all had a hand in promoting this disunity and identity problem amongst a once proud and ambitious group. Our history as Metis people needs to be re-emphasized, not rewritten; discussions must go on at community levels to foster Metis identity on a Provincial scale forgetting language, religious, and regional differences. We must not forget also that we are the product of two races one does not need to continually harp on "our" Indian heritage to be Metis; what about our white forefathers? - They, too, need to be recognized. By accepting both sides of our heritage, perhaps we too could stand up as Louis Riel once did and proclaim:

It is true that our savage origin is humble, but it is meet that we honor our mothers as well as our fathers. Why should we concern ourselves about what degree of mixture we possess of European or Indian blood? If we have ever so little of either gratitude or filial love should we not be proud to say, "We are Metis!?" [14]

Endnotes

1. In "Pour un Reseau D'Ecoles Francaises au Manitoba", Ministere de l'Education Province du Manitoba, Bureau de l'Education Francaise, novembre 1975, it is suggested that French Canadians who lose their French language thus also lose their culture. Hence, it would seem to them the French language is their culture.

2. Alberta Metis Population Betterment Act, 1937. A half-breed is a person who has 1/4 Indian blood. The Indians have their identity defined by a Federal piece of legislation - The Indian Act.

3. Exploitation of Metis Lands, Manitoba Metis Federation Press, 1975. A detailed tabulation and investigation of the 1,400.00 acres of land reserved for the children of Half-breed heads of families is given in this book.

4. People of Indian Ancestry in Manitoba, Queen's Printer, 1958, pp. 56, 57.

5. See Lussier and Sealey - Canada's Forgotten People: The Metis, M.M.F. Press, 1975. D. B. Sealey's Education of the Manitoba Metis: An Historical Sketch - unpublished, D. B. Sealey and V. J. Kirkness "Children of Native Ancestry and the Curriculum" Report to the Minister's Advisory Board on Education, 1969 - see also minutes of L'Association d'Education Francaise du Manitoba.

6. Ibid., p. 57.

7. Up until the 1960s, French speaking Metis were viewed as French-Canadian graduates.

8. The Manitoba Metis Federation was started because of a split between Status Indians and Non-Status Metis people.

9. The Manitoba Metis Federation Constitution states, a non-registered person of Indian descent. M.M.F. Constitution, 1976, Article III, Sec. 2(A).

10. See Indian Act, Section 108, 109, Queen's Printer, Ottawa, 1951.

11. In the Manitoba Bar News of August 1968, Mr. W. P. Fillmore discusses the issue of Half-Breed Scrip. In this article, he maintains that at the time of issuing of scrip a "Half-Breed" was apparently any person who could claim to have any ancestor of White blood," p. 124.

12. Manitoba Metis Federation Constitution, 1976, Article III, Sec. 2(b).

13. A Metis being a person of mixed blood.

14. Joseph Kinsey Howard, Strange Empire: The Story of Louis Riel, Swan Publishing Co. Ltd., Toronto, 2B, Ontario, 1965, p. 46.

Page revised: 1 October 2012

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