By the canal June 24, 2016

Métis Muddle: 600,000 newcomers circling round and round

My great7grandfather (7 counts the number of greats) was Onondaga, that nation within the Iroquois confederacy most closely identified with conciliation, consultation and peace. He was present and counted among the forty First Nations that met with Canada’s government of the day to conclude the historic Great Peace of Montreal in 1701, putting paid to a century of frontier wars and clearing the way for the next hundred years during which, for the most part, mutual accommodation and respect prevailed. I’ve said this before but it’s worth repeating. The Great Peace of Montreal was a terrific achievement that helped make Canada. I’m proud of my ancestor.

It’s recorded that he “went back and forth in all the negotiations” leading to the talks. Just before proceedings began, he went to tell the governor of an attack that breached the pre-conference guarantees of safe passage. That done and not one to waste an opportunity, he reported that his wife, who was Canadienne and my great7grandmother, was not able to take care of her domestic responsibilities adequately because he couldn’t provide what she needed for food and clothing. His frequent travels on behalf of the peace process meant he wasn’t able to go hunting. He asked the governor for a donkey to help his son carry wood for the fire. One was found and given to him.

Which brings me to the Supreme Court of Canada’s recent decision about Métis and non-status Indians. Close observers of that decision have noted that it adds about 600,000 Canadians to the Indian rolls, essentially tripling those for whom the federal government has some responsibility. Doesn’t get them anything they don’t have already, at least not yet. The Court specifically refused to declare that the government “owes a fiduciary duty to Métis and non-status Indians;” or that “Métis and non-status Indians have the right to be consulted and negotiated with.”

I believe 600,000 new Indians is a low estimate, probably very low. Because, as close observers also have noted, the SCC has left the question of who is Métis or non-status Indian to the augury of self-identification.

“Determining whether particular individuals or communities are non-status Indians or Métis,” reads the judgment, “is a fact-driven question to be decided on a case-by-case basis in the future.”

Further, says the Court, “there is no principled reason for presumptively and arbitrarily excluding certain Métis from Parliament’s protective authority on the basis of . . . a ‘community acceptance’ test.”

Meanwhile, here in the real world, ‘community acceptance’ tests are the norm and strictly enforced. Métis Nation, the uber-group of provincial Métis associations, says that “Métis means a person who self-identifies as Métis (yes says SCC), is distinct from other Aboriginal peoples, is of historic Métis Nation Ancestry (see below) and who is accepted by the Métis Nation. Gaining acceptance to Métis Nation is no cakewalk. It’s a tight-knit organization. Even gaining entrance to their headquarters in Ottawa is a challenge. The door is usually locked.

Manitoba may be thought of by many as the heartland, but Métis Nation claims as its “historic homeland” the three Prairie provinces with extensions into Ontario, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories. Venturers who went from the east to stay in the Prairies and other isolated regions had to adopt the lifestyle and pick up the survival skills of an untamed and exposed land. The way to do it was to learn from Indigenous people, which is also where the girls were, which led to not a few marriages à la façon campagne. Over a few generations of growth far from population centres, a new socio-economic culture was born, called Métis.

Métis Nation (the organization) doesn’t include Quebec, nor the Atlantic provinces. Is this because there are no Métis there? Not at all. It’s rather that nine out of ten families that have been here since the seventeenth century, which includes many Québecois and Maritimers, have some Indian in them. For most this line was submerged in succeeding generations while the colony grew quickly incorporating styles and customs imported from the old country. Still, by one simple definition, that of racial mixture, much of the population is Métis. This isn’t a definition that Métis Nation is prepared to accept. Nor is it one by which most colonial descendants self-identify. But it can’t be totally dismissed. In many families there was more than one Indigenous infusion. And in some it circles round and round. I have a grandson part Cree, another and a granddaughter part Mohawk.

For myself, I don’t claim to be Métis. I’m too much citified and never lived the Métis life, whatever that might be. I do feel a kinship though. There’s no doubt the family was Métis way back when Indians were Indians (status came later, non-status later still). Now we’re a little bit metis, somewhat non-status and for that, I do believe, a hundred percent onside with what the SCC perceives to be Parliament’s ultimate goal: reconciliation with all of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples.