A Shared Future in British Columbia

BC Métis Federation Secretary Joe Desjarlais discusses possibilities for a shared future with Métis and other British Columbians by looking back at our province’s history.

What has been the Province’s position on BC Métis peoples with respect to land and resource issues?

Academics like James C. Scott argue that state ‘identities’ are constructed to justify political access to resources and land. In this light the Province has limited Métis identities for political reasons. We see this clearly in a recent politically biased policy framework document dated October, 2011:

“The Province does not participate in “rights based” discussions with the Métis at this time. The Government of British Columbia does not consult with the Métis because it is of the view that no Métis community is capable of successfully asserting site specific Section 35 rights in British Columbia. It is important that staff do not waiver from this view.”

The form of ‘colonial fiction’ driving these policies is simply unsustainable in our current climate of reconciliation and ‘partnerships.’

Can we trace these ideas back to policy in the initial formation of BC and Canada?

Founding politicians like Governor James Douglas ignored British policy on the unique and prior claim of Aboriginal rights and title. In 1871, part of the terms of BC’s Confederation was that Aboriginal rights and title would remain unrecognized!

Another academic, Timothy J. Stanley, reminds us that in the 1870s the new province of British Columbia had established white minority rule by ensuring that “No Chinaman or Indian” could vote, even though the latter were the overwhelming majority of the population and the former were the next largest group and had voted in previous elections!

As historian Ken Coates ably describes, for decades after joining Confederation in 1871, the Government of BC took a hard line on Indigenous rights, blocking efforts to start land claims negotiations and resisting Aboriginal attempts to secure recognition of their land and resource rights.

Of note, Stanley goes on to argue that at the national level, Prime Minister Macdonald engineered the “greatest land grab“ in British Imperial history and built a Canadian political system based upon European dominance.

Can you provide evidence of this ‘colonial fiction’ in BC?

Some time back I was contracted by the Federal government to study the Metis historical presence at Fort Langley National Historic Site. The establishment of Fort Langley was a significant event in the post-contact history of the region, and many records come from this exchange.

I soon noticed that the pioneer stories of settlement around the Fraser valley typically marginalized First Nations and Métis people or contributions, or portrayed the inevitable triumph of European colonists and their view of progress, and ways of knowing the world. The nuanced inter-relationships of indigenous peoples to their environment, to Newcomers and to their homelands was simply not comprehended because the story itself had been told almost exclusively through European settler accounts.

As I researched why First Nations and Métis had been excluded from the narrative, I encountered Hudson Bay Company employees and early colonial officials who moved primarily from fur trade post to fur trade post. Especially after the merger of the Hudson Bay Company and the Northwest Company in 1821, ‘servants’ of the Company inhabited these ethnocentric “fortifications,” and anything and anyone outside these ‘locations of power’ were related to the core. When the fur trade story was retold even a generation later, the people out there and beyond the reach of the fort were characterized as nomads without an economy, devoid of a history, and having no political and legal systems that mattered.

Later, as miners and settlers arrived, the bias easily translated into the idea that a relatively empty land that earlier Newcomers had ‘discovered’ was free to possess, and this justified, by its very telling, that any ‘others’, especially the original peoples and nations that occupied the land, be excluded in the process.

What practical impact did these ideas have on the establishment of the province?

Métis in BC history fought hard to maintain their unique identity despite clear attempts by fur trade and colonial officials to use discriminatory colonial policy, geographical intolerance, racism, ethnic bigotry, regional and national control, limitations on economic opportunity, to marginalize or assimilate or exclude them into an emerging homogeneous “British/Canadian” culture.

As historian Daniel Francis reminds us, “fur trade society was a society shot through with snobbery and bigotry.” In my research, I learned that natives and half breeds were relegated to the lowest level of hierarchical colonial society. In one account, the mixed blood ancestry of one Métis at the Fort, named Francis Noel Annance, prevented him from moving above the role of Indian trader or postmaster, despite his obvious skill and competency. If people like Annance wanted to ‘move up’, they were increasingly coerced to self identify as white.

In other cases, fur traders and colonial leaders employed knowledge of a particular kind to regulate, dispossess and subjugate. Most journals or maps were made to establish points of reference for the explorers’ own purpose. And, perhaps most importantly, the first ‘History’ told through early anecdotal accounts from Hudson Bay Company Chief Factor James McMillan and British Army Lieutenant Charles Wilson and later reports from ethnologists such as Charles Hill Tout and Franz Boaz all come from a decidedly European perspective.

Even though it was impossible to miss indigenous presence in every facet of the history of the fur trade or early settlement, taking over First Nations and Métis time and space meant erasing place names that had indigenous significance, removing topology maps, ignoring oral traditions and other traditional knowledge.

Without the benefit of the history of indigenous-newcomer ‘partnership’ that existed prior to the establishment of British Columbia, white “pioneers” assumed leadership and ownership within an exclusive colonial economic order; as the public records of settler society clearly illustrates, they believed that the superiority of their views of land tenure had given them the natural right to ownership.

Governments are moving forward with resource sharing with First Nations, among other measures. Why should governments or other stakeholders be wary of ‘excluding’ Métis in BC from similar discussions?

In west coast history, First Nations and Métis identities are fluid and interconnected. Even from the colonial ‘written’ record, there is overwhelming evidence in the records of ‘mixed peoples’ or Metis with deep historical kinship networks among each other and among First Nations in BC. In the first part of the nineteenth century, historians like Jean Barman tell us that the trading posts were “isolated dots within an aboriginal world.” Barman informs that the fur trade worked only so long as aboriginal societies remained reasonably intact. These people knew who they were, who they related to and this was the source of their identity.

We are talking here about yet untold family histories, with associated kinship and customary principles. Historian Bruce Watson tells us that a ‘mixed descent’ society began to emerge and was never a formal process with predictable outcomes. Across Canada and down into the US there are historically diverse Métis indigenous cultures with equally diverse systems of laws.

What about arguments that the assertion of Métis rights in BC infringe on First Nations rights and title?

There is a living context to these discussions. Academics tell us that nation states and even indigenous nations often co-opt individual or kinship identities to serve wider collective goals.

Historian Russel Lawrence Barsh explains that at the time of the treaties, Coast Salish structure in the Pacific Northwest focussed on the individual, the household and the extended family and rich networks of interrelationships. There was no sense of property being a right in the strict sense of European law. All property then was private at the individual and family levels, whether it consisted of land, goods or knowledge.

These complex interrelationships that spanned vast distances and transcended present day cultural and physical boundaries are only now beginning to be acknowledged and recognized. Borders cut across kinship, trade, and political relationships between Métis and First nations.

Instead of excluding Métis or politicizing the discussions, politicians of all stripes must be charged with the task of creating the institutional space to work this relationship out. Leaving this to the ‘courts’ or imposing politically biased policy are adversarial and will not withstand the test of time.

Any closing thoughts?

Métis are resilient and will continue to construct their own identities, in spite of attempts to impose one ethnic identity over another. It is this kind of complexity and historical agency that makes ‘the many ways of being Métis’ so brilliant and resilient and difficult to regulate in Canada.

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