Métis History

Who is a Métis?

Metis means a person who self-identifies as Metis, is distinct from other Aboriginal Historic Metis Nation ancestry, and is accepted by the Metis Community.

Métis peoples are united by our relationship to the land and to each other. We are often raised to use the land as a resource for the necessities of life, not as a possession to be exploited. Communal use of the land rather than individual ownership was the norm. Métis are often referred to as the rainbow people, for they are a people of many colours and shades. Métis are not a people who define themselves through blood quantum as Indian people and government does. Métis are a community who celebrates two cultures. Those who were or are rejected by both founding cultures often find a home in the Métis community.

Métis are the heirs of a rich heritage; descendants of the voyageurs — many of the coureur du bois were Métis. Métis also come from Acadian and Cajun roots. The explorative spirit of the Métis has left its mark across the whole face of North America, from the shores of the Great Lakes, to the shores of the Pacific; from the prairies of Saskatchewan to the bayous of Louisiana.

Denial of our heritage is a woeful part of Métis history. Métis, like other Aboriginal peoples, have suffered racism and prejudice that has poisoned our people. Neither completely Indian not completely non-Indian, Metis have struggled with their unique legacy. Sadly, it has often been easier for Métis who could do so to pass as Quebecois, Scottish, Irish or whatever other non-Aboriginal heritage they could trace.

Thus, there are doubtless whole generations of these invisible Métis making their way in the world, removed from their heritage and their community.

Defining Métis is not merely an academic question. If land claim settlements between the Métis and governments are reached, it will be important to know who can live on the land, and more importantly, who can partake in income earned by the land. If Métis self-government becomes a reality, it will be necessary to determine who may participate in those governments.

Métis Nationhood

The concept of Métis nationhood is hardly a recent revelation. When most Canadians conjure up the historic mission of the "National Dream”, however, they seldom realize that the transcontinental railroad (and most other transportation systems for that matter: followed routes already blazed by Métis pioneers.

In fact, many Métis were hired by the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Northwest Company as guides and interpreters. Métis were excellent men of the outdoors and various Europeans took advantage of these men’s outdoor skills by utilizing them as guides.

Credit was rarely given to the Métis in the exploration of Northwestern Canada yet many of the exploration voyages would not have been possible were it not for the help of the Métis. Europeans simply claimed all credit for these discoveries and any heroic accomplishments – the better to build the list of achievements in the eyes of fellow Europeans.

The sense of a free, independent people building a nation in their native land figures as large in the claims presented today to governments by Métis organizations as it did historically. The Métis are the only charter group in Canada with a history of national political independence before joining Confederation.

The Métis insisted historically and to this day on being dealth with as an Aboriginal group, separate from the Native Indians. Under the leadership of Louis Riel, the Métis of Western Canada established a provisional government in 1869, which negotiated Manitoba’s entry into Confederation on terms originally designed to protect the political, cultural and economic rights of the Métis. The MacDonald government’s betrayal of those terms resulted in the loss of Métis lands to speculators and a brutal disregard of Métis language and civil rights.

Questions often arise as to the legality of the government set up by Louis Riel. Was it, in fact, a legal government? It was, indeed. In transferring land title from the Hudson’s Bay Company to the Government of Canada, The first Governor-Designate was a bit too eager, and declared the Red River settlement to be part of Canada prior to the actual sale of the land. Thus, it happened that the Hudson’s Bay Company gave up control but Canada was not legally able to take possession of the territory. Therefore, under international law, Louis Riel was able to establish a government ex necessitae and in Sir John A. MacDonald’s own words, it was "legal”.

Brief History of the Métis in Canada

Métis paternal ancestry came from a variety of nationalities: French, Scottish, Irish and English. Most mothers were Native Indian. In the beginning, the Métis Nation consisted of two different characteristic groups: the French Métis (Bois Brulé) and the English half-breeds. In every aspect of life, the Métis adjusted European technology to that of their settlements.

From their maternal (Indian) background, the Métis acquired a broad knowledge of traditional Indian ways. From their fathers, they learned the competitive spirit. Whether with father or by themselves, Métis learned to adapt both the Indian and European ways of life, using what was appropriate to their needs.

This in itself represents a central theme in Canadian history: the contact of European civilization with the ancient cultures of the wilderness. Yet how could cultures and environment be modified? This question was central to the Métis.

At that time in history, the choices seemed clear. The mixed-bloods could become nomads of the woods and plains or they could become as Europeans and be governed by the pen and plow. The Métis chose neither. Rather, they pulled both ways incessantly and sought a compromise between European and Indian ways, between hunting and generally reluctant attempts at agriculture.

Métis women played an important role in the process of accommodating two cultures. It was the Métis women who retained the leather skills of their Indian ancestors, and added the glass beads sold by the trading companies. They developed leather work into a superb craft, even an art; they produced beaded moccasins, coats, belts and mittens for their men. The work was so beautiful that the Indian women who previous to this had decorated their clothing mainly with intricately worked porcupine quills, quickly adopted the beads.

It was a Métis woman who took the leather and furs to the country and made clothes from indigenous materials patterned on the European style of tailoring clothes to body shape, rather than the use of the straight flowing robe of the Indian, or wrapping a huge blanket around themselves. The Métis women tended to dress their families much as did the Europeans.

The Métis furnishing and utensils, like their clothing, were a combination of Indian and European. From the trading posts, they obtained cast-iron pots and skillets, copper kettles, tin plates, cups, cutlery and blankets. Most of their other needs they supplied themselves.

Rawhide (from the skins of buffalo and smaller game with the fur scraped off) was cut and sewn to make containers, pots and storage bags. Sometimes the Métis made cooking pots from rawhide and to prevent the skin from collapsing when it was wet, gave it a frame of willow, A skin pot could not be placed over flames, so stones were heated in the fire and dropped into the water to make it boil.

Baskets and other containers were also made from birch bark sewn with spruce roots. These were preferred over woven willow and reed baskets, which were overly cumbersome when a family was on the move. Bones from rabbits and other small animals were hollowed out, cleaned and plugged at both ends to store needles. The stomachs of small animals, when cleaned and dried, made excellent airtight bags. Sinew (the back muscle of an animal) was commonly used for sewing. Long and stringy when dried and separated, it made an excellent thread almost impossible to break. Glue was obtained by boiling down animal hooves and horns to a fine paste.

Scraping the flesh and fat from hides was done with scrapers equipped with stone or metal blades and fleshers. Needles were obtained from traders, but in early times an awl was used to pierce holes for the sinew to pass through.

Dishes could be made from birch bark and hollowed slabs of wood. Rock and stone hammers and mauls were made by painstakingly grinding rocks for hours with another stone. With a maul, buffalo meat and wild berries could be pounded on a hollowed out stone to make pemmican.

Buffalo robes were used as blankets and rugs and when cloth scraps were available a woman could produce a quilt by making a sheet from many small pieces, sewing the sheet into a bag and stuffing it with feathers or down. Like their sisters (the Plains Indian women), Métis women put colourful designs and patterns on the everyday articles they used. Sometimes this was used for spiritual reasons, but most often it was simply out of their love of decoration.

Métis Relationship To The Land

Although the concept of individual ownership of land was alien, the fact of communal right to use of the land was literally inbred. Historically, Métis resistance to external restrictions on that use was immediate and often violent. The Métis of Sault Ste. Marie fought the Iroquois, the French, the English, Canadians and the Americans to preserve the relationship to their communities. The Métis of Red River fought the Sioux, Earl of Selkirk, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Government of Canada to assert their birthright to their land. The freedom to live our lives in the land of our birth, with or without land title, was militantly defended by the Métis.

Métis occupied lands in Canada for generations before were deprived of them by the legalistic techniques of a non-Aboriginal frontier society. There can be no question that Métis are indigenous to North American in a way no immigrant or ethnic group can claim. As natives of the land, we have been deprived of our birthright, we Métis present our case for constitutional accommodation of Métis Aboriginal and Treaty Rights.

Métis people had a significant influence on the historic development of modern Canada. The fur trade was the backbone of the colonial economy and fur-trading companies depended on the cooperation of Métis for their success. Métis who had become familiar with the territory over generations led explorers. The interaction between colonial and Métis populations follows a three hundred year old pattern which began in Acadia and continued to Sault Ste. Marie, Red River, Batoche, and indeed is still unfolding today. Legal and political techniques deprived Métis communities of fundamental human rights.

In 1875, the Half-breed Adhesion to Treaty #3 resulted in the establishment of Canada’s only Métis reserve at Couchiching, near Rainy River in Northwestern Ontario. This brief period of accommodation of Métis claims was largely the result of the Riel defense of Métis lands in 1869-70, and ended with his execution in 1885.

Current Métis in British Columbia

Economically marginalized by the actions of successive Canadian governments, many Métis gravitated west of the Rocky Mountains, where their descendants continue to reside. It is estimated that B.C.’s Métis population is between thirty and fifty thousand people — with the largest concentrations in the Northeast, Prince George and the Southwestern Lower Mainland.

Métis and the Indian Act

The Indian Act was never meant to determine who is an Indian for all purposes, only who is an Indian for the purposes of the Indian Act. Some people who are not Indians within the meaning of the Indian Act may be "Indians” within the meaning of Section 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867, and are most certainly Indians within the meaning of Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.

The Indian Act was intended as a statutory framework for the establishment and administration of Indian reserves and bands.

Scrip

In the late 1800’s, in Western Canada, the Federal Government issued scrip certificates entitling the bearer to either a specified acreage of land or a sum of money, which could be applied to the purchase of land. Scrip certificates were issued to individual Métis to satisfy their claim to land entitlement.

Land scrip certificates allowed the bearer to go to a Dominion Land Titles office and claim land that was available to settlement, the amount being determined by the acres prescribed in the certificate. This would give the impression that Métis enjoyed considerable land holdings. This, however, was far from the case. Many Métis through both active exclusion and passive indifference, were passed over for scrip. Whole communities who had lived on the land for generations were thereby swindled out of their rightful heritage. Nor was this the only way in which Métis were robbed of their land base. The Juvenile Act of Manitoba was amended to allow minor Métis children to sell or otherwise dispose of their script, opening up endless avenues for abuse.

A central government actively opposed to a powerful Métis constituency and business interests wishing to accumulate vast tracts of land conspired to make the Métis of the West a forlorn and landless people. The Métis were excluded, swindled, frightened, forced or killed off the land containing rudimentary paths that subsequent Canadians would follow to open up Canada.

The Métis were left to live on unused portions of land and it is, in fact, for this reason that the Métis were called the "Road Allowance People”, for they most often were obliged to make their settlements on the government land on either side of the road. The government holds this road allowance in case of road needs to be put through. This portion of land is only 30 feet wide.