If Not “Homeland,” Then What? by Joe Desjarlais

Traditions of a Métis “homeland” have, at their worst, limited the complexity and fluidity of Métis identities in Canada. I explore the idea that the challenge for Metis in Canada moving forward will be to grapple with the charge, If not “homeland,” then what?”

We have seen that the political Métis as an exclusive, homogeneous and geographically bound peoples whose rights flow from the Crown, has become the accepted cultural construction that has been supported by the Canadian government, some Métis organizations, industry, the scholarly community and popular culture.

Situated within a traditional history with its supporting definitions, categories, designations and policies, Metis do not exist without Canada, whether they are portrayed as villains, heroes, or victims of progress. The resulting acrimony has played out in academia, the courts and popular culture.

The construction of an exclusive Red River Métis homeland identity has, without a doubt, enabled Métis leaders over the past 100 years to maintain their ethnic distinctiveness and to delay the complete assimilation of Métis peoples into Canadian society. However, the same limited political definition has also been utilized by the Canadian government to entrench strict representations of Métis identity into law, thereby systematically discriminating against all other ways of being Métis in Canada.

They see Métis as they want to see them. In the process, they justify and maintain a unified Canadian tradition that has existed by subjugating and marginalizing Métis people and communities as a footnote of the past, a culture left behind. Generations of Canadians have for political reasons imagined Métis as corrupt, biologically disposed to illness, irrelevant, divisive, or incompetent, the very opposite of their historical reality. Tragically, Métis people themselves have often participated in their own marginalization. Some have been distracted by false loyalties or rivalries. Others, diverted by the pursuit of money, status and power, have participated in self-seeking agendas, attacking any difference of opinion as threats.

When we approach the issue from outside of the Red River, the official homeland interpretation doesn1t have as much force. The recent Daniels ruling, the Senate report on Métis identity, International discussions, and organic political and social movements have indicated that the consensus on Metis identity has shifted from fixed or frozen understandings of Métis.

Winner-take-all tactics supported by coercion, intimidation, racial prejudice, judgementalism, competition for status, grasping for cultural superiority, resentment, and a blind eye to injustice have been the ground rules for many, but this has been slowly changing, making way for policies and structures that affirm, renew, honor, and respect. There is a groundswell of support as people realize that things are changing and they will not be able to simply coast along and conform. People are moving from interest and agreement to commitment and action.

Metis are now reimagining vital, fair, tolerant, communities and nations across Canada. Rather than interpreting Métis history by its relationship to Canada, nuanced Métis histories are being informed by concepts of self-determination and historical difference. Forefront in this new telling of history are Métis authors who are reaching into their cultures and traditions for inspiration and insight in order to articulate the historical differences that make their communities unique.

These historical ruptures provide a new approach for Canadians to reflect, to dare to follow a new path, to point the way to create new possibilities for the way things can and should be. Many Métis have paid a price with strength, courage and dignity as they have decided to challenge the status quo. I constantly meet amazing Métis people and others at events from all walks of life who keep seeking justice even when they have been slandered, mocked, threatened, misunderstood or misjudged.

Métis people are moving toward a different model for being Metis, including self-determined and self-governing communities and nations with a unique historical connection to the Crown. This identity gives Métis across Canada a very important role in the world. Canada is not compromised, but rather energized by its historical traditions of diversity. By being Métis in all its fullness, they will provide insight and bring out the best in their communities and in Canadian society.

The intent of tradition, whether Canadian or Métis, isn’t merely to be ‘in the right.’ We shouldn’t mindlessly conform to tradition. Neither should we ignore or reject it. Rather, the identities we derive by traditions of being Métis or being Canadian should deal with the breach, and lead to the goal of being in right relationship.*

If traditions of “homeland” and all that implies has meant domination and separation, forcing people to live a different kind of life, our higher goal, I invite, should instead be reconciliation.

*Reminiscent of Brian McLaren’s ideas in We Make the Road by Walking, page 132, 145.

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