“Friend” of the Métis

By Joe Desjarlais

Recently, the 2014 Annual General Meeting of the BC Métis Federation was a day where relationships were established and maintained. We welcomed new board members, recognized the achievements of outgoing board members, and fostered industry dialogue. These are also times to foster new kinship relationships. As families, we enjoyed Métis music and culture, and acknowledged and celebrated ‘friends’ of the Métis.

In 1834, my own Métis ancestors also made new ‘friends.’ They learned to relate to each other in challenging times, as well as forge new friendships and positive intercultural relationships with others outside their immediate family or community networks.

A Canadian priest, an ‘outsider’ from Quebec, George Antoine Belcourt, established a new mission at this time in Baie St. Paul, (Saulteaux Village.) It was established on the bank of the Assiniboine River, about thirty-seven kilometers from St. Boniface and about eight kilometers east of today’s St. Eustache, Manitoba.

Thanks to Lawrence Barkwell’s work,i records tell us that my ancestors were included in Métis of Saulteaux Village. My own great grandfather’s extended family is located at this time and place, linked by kinship networks to other familiar Métis families, among many names I celebrated with recently.

By all accounts, my ancestors welcomed Father Belcourt into their expanding kinship as a ‘friend’ of the Métis. Father Belcourt selected a site for his mission along the Assiniboine River where a large number of Indians and Métis gathered in the spring to develop the foundations for community. At Baie St. Paul, there were dwellings to build, crops to plant, and a school to build.

In spite of cultural, political and religious differences and prevailing racist attitudes of the day by Europeans to christianize and civilize the indigenous inhabitants, Father Belcourt and the Indians and Métis with whom he worked with gradually developed a close association. It required resolve to learn about each other, to develop and maintain kinship relations.

Father Belcourt lived among them, desired to meet their felt needs, and slowly gained their trust, building bridges to their culture. He connected with Métis in the language and culture in which they lived. In the autumn of 1845 as example, Father Belcourt “went to the prairies” for six weeks as chaplain to the half-breeds on their semi-annual buffalo hunt. Embedded in the excitement of the hunt, he apparently sought to understand them on their terms, and became a ‘student’ of their culture.

There was a political cost for Belcourt to actively maintain kinship. The back- story here was that in the 1840s, the HBC company wanted to control and monopolize the trade. This story is fascinating to me personally because my grandfather’s uncle had family kinship through marriage with the Pierre-Guillaume (William) Sayer family.

In February of 1847, Father Belcourt prepared a petition to the Queen regarding the Métis grievances with regard to the HBC fur trade monopoly. Nine hundred and seventy-seven Métis signed it and James Sinclair took it to England. In retaliation, George Simpson and the HBC trumped up fur trading charges against Father Belcourt and he was blamed for inciting the Métis. In 1847, He was arrested and his possessions were searched, and the Company had the Archbishop in Quebec remove him from Red River.

Even when he eventually relocated as a pastor in North Dakota a few years later, he was not forgotten by his Métis friends to the north. William Sayer and three others were arrested in March, 1849, for the illicit purchase of furs from the Indians, and action was taken by their friends to prevent their conviction. It appears that because of the prior kinship bond, the Metis made an appeal to Father Belcourt, who by then resided in the Dakota, south of the border in another mission.

Why did Belcourt support the Métis to his own peril in these instances? No one knows for sure, but it appears that he understood their rights as originating from their Indigeneity, rather than their place as British subjects.ii Immersed in their culture and communities, Belcourt no doubt would have learned something of their extensive kinship responsibilities with one another and with First Nations.

My point in re-telling this family history is that Father Belcourt realized what many are only just beginning to understand today. In spite of his religious, ethnic or political orientation, Father Belcourt demonstrated an ethical responsibility to these people and respect for their indigenous traditions, to inform people and groups when the relationships were broken, or could improve. In a crisis, he put aside his own views and fought for the rights of Métis. He decided he would not sit in denial, pretend ignorance, or tell himself that someone else, governments, industry, or Metis leaders in some far off back room, would fix the massive problems they faced.

Father Belcourt’s story speaks to current Métis /Canadian relationships today. As I write this, the Métis/Canadian relationship is at a low point. We live in a country where the attitudes and actions of outsiders or compromised ‘insiders’ have caused Métis kinship to break down, with each other and others. Governments and industry and other institutions have employed half measures, magic bullet solutions that ignore ongoing, systemic injustice and failed relationships.

If we look at recent media coverage around current problems, government leaders have been no ‘friends’ of the Métis in Canada. They deny any responsibility for this quagmire and don’t want to take any risk in dealing with it. They evade the issues, or act like victims, and don’t face up to the fact that they have to deal with this outstanding injustice toward an indigenous people in Canada. Just because Métis are out of sight of most Canadians is no excuse not to deal with them, to impose majority “solutions,” or to allow these unjust conditions for hundreds of thousands of Métis in Canada to continue.

Métis for their part are once again rebuilding strong communities and renewing kinship with ‘friends’ of the Métis at the institutional level, whether governments, industry, or in education circles. There will be a cost for true ‘friends’ and partners as they commit to restore kinship with Métis in ways that respect their autonomy and interdependence as indigenous peoples. Character and commitment will be tested. The validity of attitudes and actions will be tested.

Every Canadian is a potential ‘friend’ of the Métis. As well, Métis from different traditions across Canada and beyond are responsible to rebuild kinship and tell their own shared stories. First Nations are also potential ‘friends’ of the Métis. They would do well to remember that Métis and First Nations people and communities both have unique indigenous traditions and that kinship and mutual recognition and respect run deep in our shared history. Their ability to re-imagine a transformative partnership with Metis is one key to their own best future in Canada as vital communities and nations.

We either get it right at this pivotal point in our history or it is left another generation.

Reconciliation will hinge on the ability to open up the Canadian public’s imagination to another way of thinking about Métis relations with Canada. The Federation has begun to open up a space for dialogue in society that isn’t closed to possibility. If enough people have the courage to decide not to look away, but decide to be a ‘friend’ of the Métis in their generation, in their time and place, looking for practical ways to restore broken relationships, then reconciliation will truly happen.

End notes:

  1. http://www.metismuseum.ca/media/document.php/14629.pdf 
  2. Read Adam Gaudry’s PHD thesis: Page 190 https://dspace.library.uvic.ca//handle/1828/5180

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