By Joe Desjarlais
A solid understanding of Crown-Metis relations is very important for all Canadians as Metis people and communities reconcile with Canadian society. The reality is that Metis in BC are asserting their historic governing authority. Engaged Canadian citizenship, then, requires a deep and shared understanding of the history of Crown-Metis relations and a clear and shared view of what is required for reconciliation with these communities today.
The ongoing challenge has been that Canadian governments most often offer rhetoric or ‘token’ solutions with no commitment to meaningful partnership with Metis. They have most often set the terms for (limiting) the relationship based upon misconceptions of Metis and their historical place in this country.
Thankfully, meaningful scholarship is taking place that is reframing the narrative of Crown-Metis relationships across time and space. This is part of a growing counter-discourse that is challenging standard narratives, reviving political history as co- dependency based on indigenous Metis understandings. These studies challenge colonial ideas that Metis were not indigenous, or that they were incapable of political formation.
As a few examples among many, I think of Karen Marrero’s academic work on the history of complex kinship networks and alliances by Metis in the East that influenced formative events in both war and peacetime in places like Detroit, the Great lakes, Montreal and elsewhere. Another example in Manitoba is Adam Gaudry’s recent doctoral thesis that seeks to reframe the Manitoba Act of 1870 as a bilateral Manitoba treaty, a “shared vision” between two governments. According to Gaudry, Macdonald’s Conservative government and the Provisional government were able to reach consensus on issues like local political control, and a large Metis land reserve.
Some time ago I was contracted by Parks Canada in Fort Langley to provide advice to inform the design and content of exhibits concerning Metis people as part of its renewal of exhibits. In a nutshell, they wanted stories about 19th century Metis people that encountered the Fort. In my own research I learned that there is a lack of scholarship on the history of Metis and First Nations relationships in BC from an indigenous perspective. Most journals or maps were made to establish or justify points of reference for the explorers’ own purposes. As in other areas in Canada, Metis identity in BC is fluid and dynamic and must be understood in relation to oral traditions and accounts, kinship protocol and with other indigenous peoples.
Two political ideas have been coming info focus for BC Metis:
1. A commitment to ‘proximity’ or historical difference – self determination, self government and self sustainability of Metis people, communities and nations. This means commitment to ongoing, positive community formation.
2. A commitment to ‘translation,’ to facilitate nation to nation partnership agreements as Metis reconcile with Canadian society, industry, and institutions. This means negotiating a ‘shared vision for coexistence’ between Metis people, communities, nations and Canada.
A revitalized sense of relatedness is the basis for Metis people on the ground as they form vibrant community life in British Columbia. Over the last few years as example, the BC Metis Federation and partner communities hosted many events as Metis people rebuild their sense of community. This means renewed stories that demonstrate commitment to leadership support and capacity development at the community level, as distinct self determining communities.
This commitment to the principle of historical autonomy of Metis forms the basis for translation, ongoing positive negotiation between nations, leading to interdependence and mutual agreement and sharing between Metis, First Nations and mainstream Canada.
For example, BC Metis have been nurturing relations across this province with First Nations. The BC Metis Federation represented their partner communities at the Aboriginal Business Match 2014. They signed the Save the Fraser declaration with many First Nations as an act of kinship in time of need. BC Metis stood with the Musqueam when their ways of life were challenged on their traditional territory. In BC, Metis communities are distinct political entities who negotiate and sign agreements among each other and with First Nations and other groups. There is a move toward increased engagement and capacity building with industry and mainstream institutions along ethical lines, respecting indigenous ideas and the ability of Metis and First Nations to ‘choose.’
Current Federal and Provincial government policies reflect a blatant disregard for the historic Metis/Canadian relationship. They have ignored a shared relationship with Metis people that is based on principle. This has resulted in their inability to assume their historic responsibility to meaningfully assist Metis people through challenging times or facilitating external challenges such as the current third party demands of industry with almost 20 major projects looming!
Metis Federation President Keith Henry recently reflected that “the lack of meaningful engagement and consultation by AANDC is contributing to the overall loss of our culture and self governing inherent rights. The current process with MNC and a number of their governing members is all about fighting their own insolvency, or enacting ill conceived notions of “supreme authority”, and maintaining status quo, which must not be acceptable for the betterment of Métis people across Canada. These leaders have forgotten who the large majority of our Métis people and their needs.”
By refusing to negotiate with BC Metis people in the spirit of the treaty relationship, and by their elusive efforts to create the illusion of ‘certainty’ by ignoring outstanding issues, Canada’s governments actually foster a climate of ‘uncertainty’ for all Canadians. The Constitutionality of their actions has become evident and it has become more difficult for governments to continue the facade of ignoring the political governing authority of Metis people in BC. Federal and Provincial governments have yet to treat with BC Metis people and communities as full partners in shaping Confederation. I conclude with political historian Gaudry, with compelling words that most certainly have relevance for BC Metis communities:
“Only by becoming treaty partners, and agreeing to share the land, can Canada claim a legitimate political presence in the North-West, and it is being bound to the treaties and the very specific relationships—the same Canada has typically ignored—that Canada can find the basis for its presence today. Canada’s shared political authority in the contemporary North-West, then, is dependent on relationships with the Indigenous nations there, not on these historic imaginings based in fantasy and unilateral declarations of empire.”
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