Don’t Tell Us Who We Are (Not): Reflections on Métis identity

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Joyce Green, University of Regina
Guest Contributor

This blog post is part of the Federation Equity Issues Portfolio’s ‘Transforming the Academy: Indigenous Education’ series, which will be the focus of the Portfolio’s programming at Congress 2011.

After having messed up Indian and Inuit identity for over 140 years, the federal government has just passed Bill C-3, yet another inadequate amendment to address gender inequity in the membership provisions of the Indian Act. Now the federal government proposes to study and regulate Métis identity. This aim of regulating Métis identity was conveyed through suggestions that, among other things, federal agencies examine different Métis organizations for consistency of membership criteria.

Despite the backpedalling of some bureaucrats and politicians when the media and the Métis National Council (MNC) asked questions, it is reasonable to read this as a government wish to standardize what it means to be Métis, and to define Métis for the purposes of policies, rights claims, and other identity claims.  Having unilaterally enforced a limited vision of what it means to be ‘Indian,’ arguably a category created by the colonial imagination, these sorcerers’ apprentices now feel compelled to expand their expertise to the Métis.

Recognition by the state, or ‘status,’ always has been a tool of the colonial government, intended to identify a discrete community for policy attention, the ultimate objective of which was assimilation; and to limit financial liability of the colonial state. Clarifying or standardizing Métis ‘status’ is not driven by the needs or interests of Métis communities, nor is it apparently framed by international law about self-determination and indigenous human rights.

One danger of an authentication formula, designed for the purpose of colonial legal and administrative clarity, is that it would subject Métis, in all our diversity, to an external legitimation process. And, as history has shown, only some will be legitimated.  Further, such a process indicates that colonialism has been so effective that some Aboriginal people rely on externally-imposed criteria for internal recognition.

Identity via self-determination is one means to remedy the legacy of colonialism. But it is unclear which is the self-determining entity or entities. While the best known Métis community emerged in the Red River environment, and suffered dislocation and dispersal through two military and political crises culminating in the state murder of Louis Riel and others, many other Métis communities also emerged, both in other locations and as a result of dispersal.

The Métis National Council definition of Métis privileges descendants of the historical Red River Métis; it ties identity to recognition by the Métis Nation, which eliminates many other communities and families, such as those in Newfoundland and Labrador, and in Yukon. The MNC criteria for recognition can be, at times, problematic. For example, the criteria require applying for a Métis card from where one resides, not from where one is ‘from’. Based on this, I would have to get a benediction from the Saskatchewan Métis bureaucracy for my Métis identity, despite coming from a British Columbia family with ties to the Red River community (and with ties to the Ktunaxa Nation in southeastern British Columbia); and despite the fact that some family members have obtained Métis status by applying from our home community in B.C.

A status card confers recognition of identity. As Sharon McIvor argues in her eponymous cases litigating Indian identity, it leads to feelings of self-worth. McIvor’s cases challenged the sexist and racist consequences of the 1985 amendments to the status provisions of the Indian Act.  Dissatisfied with the latest decision, she is now taking her case to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, arguing that Canada continues to privilege those who trace their Indian ancestry through male line, discriminating against those who trace their ancestry through female forebearers.

In her brilliant case comment – “McIvor: Justice Delayed – Again,” – on the challenges to the membership provisions of the Indian Act, Mary Eberts wrote:

What Canada sees as a bedeviling lack of consensus among First Nations and the National Aboriginal organizations is actually a healthy diversity, a welcome escape from the one-size-must-fit-all confines of the Indian Act.  For its part, Canada should forget the exploratory process, and explore instead the simple option of simply deferring to First Nations on the citizenship issue.

And who are the Métis?  Ask six different organizations or six different kinds of Métis, get an equivalent number of different definitions. As Jean Teillet writes, “Métis identity is confusing to everyone.”  Some communities and people consider themselves ‘half-breed’ or ‘breed.’ Others claim to be Métis by tracing ancestry to the historic Red River community. Others still claim to be ‘metis,’ including those who originate elsewhere on Turtle Island, such as Newfoundland and Labrador. Some are nationalist, and privilege certain originary myths. Some communities and identities are culturally formulated. Some frame boundaries between insiders and outsiders, but it is not yet clear why those boundaries are necessary, or if they are in compliance with communities’ experiences (rather than political organizations’ aspirations) and with international and domestic protection of Indigenous peoples.

For some Métis communities the shared boundaries were those imposed by external racism and exclusion, and by rejection; and the result led to the creation of particular conceptions of identity and of community.  This is very different than the Red River experience.  Some communities became Métis by default – boundary people, who were not permitted to be status Indian and were rejected as white. As University of British Columbia sociologist Renisa Mawani argues, people with ‘mixed’ heritages were stigmatized as biologically and culturally degenerate and deviant; the state sought to regulate authenticity and purity.

The colonial objective of assimilation motivated the official policy set toward Métis; the political culture of racism shaped its distinctions. Métis non-Aboriginal heritage was considered to be a step toward assimilation – a dilution of the ‘Aboriginal blood’, understood in racist and eugenic terms. This approach viewed Métis as ‘less authentic’ Aboriginals because of the assumption of diluted Aboriginality, thus framing colonial denial of Métis as Aboriginal through to the 1982 constitutional recognition.

As Jean Teillet suggests in her “Métis Law Summary 2009,” Métis invisibility the result of several factors: (1) the fact that, historically there were only two identity options in Canada B white or Indian B because no one wanted to recognize the existence of a mixed-race people; (2) the erasure of historic aboriginal geographic boundaries; (3) the hidden language of the Métis; (4) the fact that the Métis are not phenotypically distinct; (5) a general disinclination to publicly identify following the events of 1870 and 1885; and finally (7) their mobility.

Canadian colonization, sexism and racism has damaged all Métis communities, though not all in the same way.  Yet, the Métis are not walking away from recognition and the possibility of revitalization. While a lack of legislative attention and of land has contributed to cultural erosion, Emma LaRocque has rightly argued that, "cultural erosion does not mean cultural amnesia."

Amen: this approach is the only respectful one, consistent with international guarantees of the right to self-determination within the framework of human rights law that protects all of the members of our communities from such violations as sex discrimination. The right to self-definition is part of the panoply of Indigenous human rights.

Why do Métis need to be defined – for what and by whom?  As with other Aboriginal peoples, the Métis are concerned to maintain their cultures and identities but, as Emma LaRocque has argued, this is not a claim to Aracial or ethnic purity or cultural superiority.@ The colonial and racialized history of Canada has led to many Aboriginal identities, and thus, of histories and communities.  Not all of us fit a formula, and not many of us fit only one formula.

As Métis, we’ll figure it out, and find ways to define citizenship, identity and community.  We don’t need the federal or any other government to do this for us. The very polyvalent nature of Métis-ness will impel more inclusive, less absolute frameworks for identity. The definition process may take time, as communities grapple with the consequences of the long history of state and settler societies telling us who we are not. After all, we know in our psyches, in our families, that we do not – cannot – choose ‘either/or’ identities and be true to all that shapes us.

Joyce Green is the editor of Making Space for Indigenous feminism, and a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Regina.


Equity Matters


Great article. I think the issue is not so much that Métis peoples do not know how we define ourselves and conceive of our community/communities - one way or another our ancestors have always found ways to build senses of community around shared kinship ties. The problem we are posed with comes largely from a colonial government that insists on subsuming us all within 'manageable' and homogenizing categories (much like our 'First Nations' cousins). The idea that there may be many widely varied Métis communities with unique histories, languages, and territorial linkages challenges the colonial project that desires so strongly to reduce us to a singular faction that can be easily identified and ultimately eliminated.

I have enclosed this following Metis definition that is based on 30 years of genealogical and historical research into the Metis families and our interconnections with all of the nations. What the service agency sponsored definitions seem to forget is that our families hold hereditary responsibilities and titles from all of our indigenous and feudal historic families.

"Metis Definition

A Metis is a blood descendant of the original Indigenous families of Turtle Island (also known as North and South America ) and a blood descendant of the original allied families.

Our families are the indigenous descendants of the chief and head families engaged with trading from other nations including all the indigenous nations of North and South America .

Following the introduction of European trade goods and the offers of peaceful alliances based on traditional trading practices, trade based marriages were arranged that facilitated the peaceful trading in European goods. Competition between indigenous nations over trade and territorial boundaries sped up the number of nations allying themselves through blood based marriages with the new suppliers of trade goods. Like the gypsies in Europe these families held their own hierarchy and family traditions based on indigenous models of living. The new offspring emerged united as allies to the Indigenous Families under the identifying names such as Bois Brule, Coureur de Bois, Otipemisiwak, The Free people, Metis, Voyageurs, Norwesters, Great Plains Michif, Michif speakers, Louisianna Metis, Acadians, Cajuns, Creoles, the flower bead people, half breeds, breeds and others. We lived in our free and allied territories from one coast to the other.

Following the European feudal incursions and challenges over legal land title our families united as the Metis Nation with a blue flag and white infinity symbol.

All who desire to identify as a member of the Metis Nation may do so from direct Metis descent or from allied family descent. Allied families include the Indigenous Nations - referred to alternately as North American Indians, South American Indians, Native Americans, Natives, Aboriginals etc. and families related by kinship to the original allied families. The original allied families are those families not originally from the region of Turtle Island (North and South America ) who within the last two or more millennia joined their families as allies with the families of the Sovereign Indigenous Nations and who identify as being of Metis descent.

Written in 2008 as head of the Metis definition committee for the Candain Metis Council.

Martin Carriere

As a Métis Zimbabwean, my mother being a Canadian Métis and my father a Shona, I can’t help but wonder, am I Métis person? With all the debate on who is and is not a Métis person, frankly I am confused over this point. I feel like I am a Métis person, descended from both eastern and Western Métis, though others seem to beg to differ is it because I am in part black, or “coloured” as Meenal suggests for us Southern Africans. Despite my blackness and despite my Eastern Metisness, and despite being raised as at least bicultural, I believe I am a Métis person. Wanting to get a better understanding of what it means to be a Métis, I put up a survey entitled Constructing Métis identity, that I hope people interested in Métis issue will take. I do not think identity can be imposed or extinguished by laws or definitions, only except by the owner of that identity. Thanks! Tendai

Thanks for the comment, Jennifer. I agree that the colonial project has defined us -- all of us -- in ways that had little connection with who we were or are. I worry that some of us internalize these colonial frameworks. I wonder if that produces us essentially as a reflection of the colonial imagination. I wonder what it will take for us to find authenticity that is non-essentialist, non-exclusionary, non-racist and grounded in our experiences and aspirations.