Metis as "Indians"

January 29, 2017

 

 

I was very pleased to attend the Looking Beyond Daniels conference at the University of Alberta this past week, in which the attendees discussed the implications of the recent Supreme Court decision in the case of Daniels v. Canada. While most of the presenters were academics, many in the audience were Metis community members. As with any family discourse, there were varying positions and perspectives, all of which hold merit and must be respected. 

 

Years ago, when I was drawn to study the history of the Metis people in Canada, one of the first books that I read was Halfbreed, by Maria Campbell. That book was an important inspiration for me as I continued on my journey of researching and writing about the Metis in Canada. So, naturally, I was pleased that one of the first panel members to speak at the conference was Maria Campbell. Maria Campbell is both a respected elder and an academic. While she spoke of her work alongside Harry Daniels, Maria Campbell also offered some advice to the young scholars in attendance. That advice was, yes the work you are doing is important, but even more importantly is to "get out into the community, gather the stories, before it is too late." 

 

As I reflected on Maria Campbell's words, those of the other presenters, and those of the audience members, I could not help but feel some sadness that the colonial strategy of "divide and conquer" still assumes a role in the Metis struggle for their rightful place in Canadian society. While many in the audience insisted that "we know who we are," many on the panels argued that Metis is defined by one who 1) self-identifies as Metis 2) is distinct from other Indigenous people 3) can demonstrate a genealogical link to the historic Metis nation 4) is accepted by a Metis community.  

 

I am also mindful that adoption of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Calls to Action means that we cannot "skip over" the truth in order to reach reconciliation. So what is the truth for the Metis in Canada? Is it that which some academics and some Metis organizations maintain, as articulated in the four stipulations above? If that is the truth that we settle on, then what is to become of the Metis people across Canada and in Alberta who cannot meet those four requirements? 

 

The "truth" of history is that many Metis "self-identify" as such today only after a long journey that, often for the sake of their very survival, alternated between designations of "white," "non-status," "half-breed," "Indian," "French," "Ukrainian," "Scottish," and on and on we could go. Who now will make the decision about how these people can self-identify? Will it be the federal government? Will it be the various Metis associations?

 

If the discourse at the Looking Beyond Daniels conference demonstrated one thing, it is that there are no easy answers. As one of the panelists noted, "it's complicated." 

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