The Age of Reciprocity

BC Métis Federation Executive board member Joe Desjarlais examines government and industry partnerships with Métis through a historical lens.

Is there a pattern in history of Métis partnering with others in ways that affirm culture? 

The position of the BC Métis Federation is that partnerships in BC must work to support Métis culture and values. For instance, we have stated this protocol in the founding business plan of our development corporation as we move forward. The development of Métis institutions is built on the historical premise that Métis were partners in history, never of ‘peripheral concern,’ or passive responders to forces beyond their control.

In pacific fur trade history as example, First Nations, Métis and Europeans shared a ‘mutually beneficial economic system.’ When they established forts, the reality was that Indigenous peoples accepted the existence of trading posts to the benefit of indigenous cultures and societies.

Can you illustrate how reciprocity took positive shape in history?

As historian Robin Fisher argues, fur traders had to operate largely within the context of Aboriginal culture. Different cultures recognized and learned from one another and changed to benefit. First Nations and Métis were involved as decision makers in the changes and their cultures remained intact in the exchange. They were astute business people, engaged in international trade and inter-tribal trading situations. In history they controlled the trade, and trade added greatly to indigenous wealth!

Have governments done all they can to facilitate reciprocity in this climate of reconciliation? 

We have heard governments make political statements about ‘partnering’ with Aboriginal peoples, but inconsistencies persist. For example, Lawyer Doug Eyford ‘s recent report on Treaties states that despite the Court’s preference that reconciliation be pursued through good faith negotiations, litigation continues to dominate Crown-Aboriginal relations.

The Federal Government recently signed an economic development accord with some Métis. Yet Métis and Canadians continue to observe a human rights case in BC concerning Métis moving forward against the Federal government! They claim to partner with Métis people, but then neglect other Métis people or groups like they are irrelevant, even as obstacles when it suits their interests.

Over the years, Métis have been very clear in responding to a lack of principled policies. Significantly, negotiations ignore or subvert historical connections to land and resources and disregard the history of dispossession of Métis and First Nations and pretend it didn’t exist.

Can you illustrate the ‘history of dispossession’ in BC’s past? 

It is difficult to read about British Columbia’s transitional years from colony to a Province of Canada. In Robin Fisher’s work on BC history, one encounters a complete public denial by politicians and settlers of indigenous rights and title, a refusal to settle treaties, enforced loss of land, removal and separation policies and practices, racial distinctions, erroneous public statements, lack of access to resources, inequality of treatment, outright misappropriations of funds, manipulation of leaders through recognition politics, loss of political autonomy and influence, and many other injustices.

For First Nation and Métis, the devastating consequences have been social disorganization, diminishing of wealth and major disruptions of their cultures, identities, and societies.

Any final words about current approaches in partnering with British Columbia Métis? 

I am hopeful that the recent public affirmation of partnership by the province of British Columbia in Métis education models transformative change for every citizen.

As academic historian Paige Raibmon so powerfully wrote, “Every non-aboriginal person living in British Columbia today is a living beneficiary of the original sin of dispossession. This hidden subsidy keeps our quality of life afloat… Not all of us can trace our literal roots to early colonization, but we are nonetheless all rooted to this past. We all have a spot on this colonial genealogy. This is a difficult fact with which to reckon, particularly for residents of British Columbia today.”

On behalf of Métis, the Federation invites Canadians and their institutions to acknowledge a shared past, to look for ways to develop seeds of trust. It takes courage to bring people /ideas/parties together in ways that promote partnership, peace and wellbeing.

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