This past week an online Government of Canada survey has come under criticism from the Métis community across the country. One of the questions ask “What threat did Louis Riel present to Canada”?
This question has sparked outrage in the Métis community and this week BC Métis Federation Secretary Joe Desjarlais has released an article entitled “Taking the West”.
The BC Métis Federation encourages Métis and non-Métis friends to read the article and share with your networks. This misinformed education for new immigrants to Canada is an insult to our community.
[ilink url=”[ilink url=”http://www.cbc.ca/m/news/#!/content/1.2706867/” style=”download”]Louis Riel question in government online quiz raises ire[/ilink]
Taking the West
By Joe Desjarlais
Question: “What threat did Louis Riel represent to Canada?”
Answer: “He led two armed revolts that threatened the future of Canada as a country that goes from one sea to the other.”
There we have it, a seemingly simple question and answer on the role of Louis Riel in the country’s history in an online test from Citizenship and Immigration Canada. The answer is stated as if it is an inevitability, a lesson from the past we are meant to believe, adapt and apply when we think of them.
Canadian government public officials have once again been cast in the role of agents to serve ideology, once again sowing seeds of ethnic division, rivalry and fear. Witnessing Louis Riel cast into the tired refrain as a stereotypical rebel and their followers as hapless victims of unscrupulous leaders, it is exceedingly difficult to envision official government histories as little more than a thinly veiled exercise
in propaganda. The ‘authorized’ historians who make these forms claim to give us the dispassionate facts.
In the process, they seek to contain Métis as relics of a distant past.
As Daniel Francis once opined, Euro-Canadian ‘white’ society was permitted to evolve without losing its defining cultural, ethnic and racial characteristics.
Yet we know that Métis were viewed as impediments, as strangers to progress, and could not change or evolve into modern day Canada without becoming something else, something not Métis. The assumption here was that the ‘inferior’ civilization has to give way to the superior, with its dominant Western traditions.
Progress had a price indeed.
This all reminds me of CBC Canada’s national public broadcaster millennium production some years back entitled Canada: A Peoples History. In one episode entitled Taking the West, aboriginal systems of governance are mentioned only in passing. The Métis as a people are largely depicted as incompetent.
The Batoche scenes, in fact, are punctuated with the narrated remark, “their hope ended at Batoche, in tragedy and degradation.” Yet another, “While the nation was taken at great cost, a nation now stretched from sea to sea.”
Overwhelming emphasis to the viewer is upon images of dead Métis on the battlefield at Batoche and a ‘new beginning’ of Canada.
To this day, these public words and images diminish the notion that the Métis have a nuanced past, or can own their past politically or culturally, or forge a shared vision with Canada ‘from one sea to the other,’ even as they currently engage the nation state of Canada and society. Of note, there is no mention of the indigenous value systems of Métis inhabitants, or if and why the immigrant communities were justified in ‘taking the West,’ dispossessing the original Métis inhabitants of their land in the process.
The real history is disturbing, even horrifying at points. Standard accounts leave out the racist perspectives that influenced the settlers at the time, and how this manifested in policy and law. Much of the story of Canada’s past has been told through this notion of assimilation. In many ways, Canadians understood themselves in the context of race, and ideas of the hierarchy of race went right into building Canadian ‘nationhood.’
There was the gradual assimilation legislation. The government created the notion of special status through the Indian Act. It identified who an Indian was, it created rights and it set them apart in Canadian law. So historically, the idea of the status Indian was created in about 1876. It was an all out attack on a people and their culture in their own homeland. The government went after the tribalism structure and attacked it every way they could. Government did not recognize tribal leaders. Lawyer and former politician Bob Rae recently reminded Canadians in his article A New and Exciting Frontier, that there is a growing body of historical evidence that the written treaties as interpreted by the Crown were forced on First Nations. They were, for the most part, take-it-or-leave-it documents that were matched by real economic hardship. The phrase “starved into submission” is tragically accurate.
The governments of the day began to manipulate consent by removing children from their traditional culture in order to assimilate them. Freedom of speech and representation was taken away. First Nation communities could not bring a grievance to government or hire a lawyer. Residential school was simply a cultural, if not physical, genocide.
For the Métis, the Indian act separated them from indigenous ways of life. After 1870 it became increasingly dangerous for the Métis people to self identify as Métis. Resistance and its aftermath was seen as provocation in every sense of the word. In 1872, the Ontario legislature passed a $ 5,000 bounty on the head of Louis Riel. As Métis layer Jean Teillet writes, he atmosphere in Winnipeg after 1870 has been called a “reign of terror” which was designed to discourage public identification as Métis.
Ethnic flames were fanned and the rule of law was violated in this tumultuous time. Consider the words of pioneer Louis Goulet from the RR Settlement back in 1867 as he observed local changes:
“Something was missing in the Red River colony. There wasn’t the same feeling of unity and friendship that had always been felt among these people of different races and religions…the old timers seemed to feel a strange mood in the air. Newcomers, especially the ones from Ontario, were eagerly sowing racial and religious conflict, banding together to fan the flames of discord between different groups in the Red River settlement. “
Stories of vital Métis political and social histories between Métis, First Nations, the HBC and Canada have been discounted or omitted by gatekeepers because they didn’t fit in with the creation and maintenance of the prevailing ‘mythic national memory’.
History is about power and responsibility. Whoever control history controls identity formation. Amidst the politically and legally charged contests of ‘being Métis’ in Canada, a climate riddled with injustice for Métis people, it has become increasingly challenging for Métis to assert their stories publicly, including their historic right to exercise choice, to identify publicly as a self governing people and to assert these
historic rights, for fear of being labelled as new forms of ‘savagery’.
A case-in-point is the ongoing national Métis crisis across Canada. Métis are a Constitutionally recognized people. They exist in communities and see themselves as vital communities and ‘nations’ in Canada. Courts have affirmed their rights and the fiduciary obligation of governments and industry toward them as an aboriginal people under the highest laws of the land. The honour of the Crown is at stake. Yet, hundreds of thousands of Métis across Canada and their communities are being denied historical justice. The BC Métis Federation has emerged as a leader in deepening and broadening this public conversation.
The big picture has been that the stories Canadians tell about Métis still work to justify policies of assimilation, subjugation, disintegration, and continued dispossession from the land. Within this prevailing official government logic, it is apparent that there continues to be no ‘official’ future for the Métis as self determining, self governing, and self sufficient peoples.
Instead of perpetuating systemic injustice through denial and omission in the public domain, Canada has a responsibility to the full weight of Canada’s history. ‘Take it or leave it’ attitudes are wrong. We can and must do better as a country when we tell newcomers about Canada. As Philosopher John Ralston Saul has reminded Canadians in general, “none of us can go out and choose the bits we like from citizenship and leave out the bits we don’t like. Citizenship is a fundamental obligation. It is a matter of both responsibilities and rights.”
It is time our guiding public stories in Canada started to reflect this reality.
[ilink url=”http://bcmetis.com/wp-content/uploadsTaking-the-West-July-16th-2014-Joe-Desjarlais.pdf” style=”download”]Taking the West July 16th, 2014 Joe Desjarlais[/ilink]