The Manufactured Halfbreed Part 2 – Joe Desjarlais

BC Metis Federation Executive Committee member Joe Desjarlais has released part 2 of an article series entitled “The Manufactured Halfbreed”.

Part 2 provides interesting quotes and information about policy and public views of the Metis in BC.

The Manufactured Halfbreed (Part 2) – Images in BC history

By Joe Desjarlais

In my first article, we explored how past and current Metis-specific policy frameworks in the province of British Columbia create an environment that limits historic Métis identities. I argued that governments construct powerful racial discourses that reinforce images of a historically marginalized category of ‘half-breeds,’ whose only success lies in political, legal, economic and cultural assimilation.

So how did a founding Indigenous people get reconfigured in the imagination of generations of British Columbians as a smattering of individuals with deficiencies? Why are historic Metis communities portrayed as fringe ethnic ‘interest groups’ or dysfunctional service delivery agencies? Why do governments continue to churn out public statements that deny Métis in BC the ability to practice fluid and dynamic identities?

The truth is far different than the standard mythologies. Metis have long insisted they were historically different, which led to expressions of their sovereignty during the English colonial period in the signing of the Treaty of Niagara, 1764 and in the War of 1812 as allies of the British, and during the Canadian period in the negotiation of the Treaty of Manitoba in 1870 (Manitoba Act of 1870). Historical records reflect that Métis have a deep footprint in British Columbia. I think of the popular history written by George and Terry Goulet called Métis in British Columbia- From Fur trade outposts to Colony.

Early accounts seem to agree. I found a late 19th century BC newspaper article in Victoria which, despite its racist language of the day, stated that “in 1837 the British possessions on this continent consisted of four provinces in the East. The remainder of the Mainland was terra incognita to all but the savages, the Metis and the Hudson’s Bay Company’s officers.”

In 1885 at his trial, Louis Riel stood at this transition point between two worlds. Louis Riel reminded the courtroom that there are Indians and Metis in British Columbia, as part of the great North West. He believed that the resolution of the land issue for Metis in British Columbia was a key to a Metis future.

“And as there are Indians and half breeds in British Columbia, and as British Columbia is a part of the immense North-West… that they help us to have our seventh (of the lands) on the two sides of the Rocky mountains…”

Regardless of reality, the historical differences of Métis have not found a coherent expression in the official written histories of Canada because of the racial discourse associated with colonialism and as a result of the myth of cultural purity that often disregarded ‘mixed-blood’ communities. As a contract public historian, I encountered many examples of histories written as racial discourse, whether academic or popular histories. I spent 3 months in some of BC’s largest university libraries as a research consultant. I only found a small number of academic social histories on early origins and encounters of BC Metis people in early fur trade history. There are no cultural histories I know of that deal with “indigenous” encounters between BC Metis and other Metis communities across North America or other indigenous peoples.

After the Gold Rush, “halfbreeds” were relegated to the lowest level of the new colonial society emerging in BC. Adele Perry in her book On the Edge of Empire: Gender, Race, and the making of British Columbia tells us that after the 1860s in British Columbia, the prevailing conversation saw mixed race relationships as dangerous, both to individuals and colonial development. Popular accounts of the past by early settlers and their institutions described Metis through a racial lens. The larger context was that Gradual Enfranchisement legislation and the Indian Act discriminated toward Metis people and communities in that it separated them legally from reserve systems and integrated aboriginal ways of being.

In the nineteenth century, leaders and gatekeepers within religious and educational institutions as well as industry invoked their racist views of the past. As example, corporate leader George Simpson, an HBC man and governor believed that mixed bloods were shiftless, stupid, conceited, too close to a depraved state of nature to be useful to the company in any but the lower positions. British Columbia historian Jean Barman talks of an early English church planter in the Columbia who remarked that “their off-spring were mere degraded savages.” In 1877, superintendent of education John Jessup visited a school near Langley, BC. Writing in his diary, he “found 21 pupils, chiefly half breeds and Indians… half breed children very unpromising, dull and stupid, apparently incapable of learning.”

In those days, the media has also functioned to deconstruct the notion of historical differences of Métis. The Victoria Daily Colonist in 1889 tinkered with the historical record to portray a Metis people that had no unique histories of their own or among First Nations, were public enemies of Canada, unruly, and need to be funneled into a better life. This newspaper account demonstrated that there is a big difference between news and truth:

“No one in Canada feels disposed to deal harshly with the Métis because they took up arms against the Government. They are looked upon as misguided men whose simplicity and ignorance of the world were taken advantage of by designing and unscrupulous men to further their own ambitious projects.”

“These Métis should not be encouraged to believe that they have any rights in the Northwest that are not possessed by settlers of other races and creed. Whoever leads them to believe that they should be favoured by the Government because they happened to be among the first settlers in the country does them serious Injury.”

Because of the politicization of identity in our history, Métis communities are never considered as self-determined and self-governing nations with a unique historical connection to the Crown and First Nations and therefore are not a part of the national imagination that guides the actions of the Canadian government, its courts of law, or its society. Governments speak a vocabulary of ‘self government’ but they have essentially hollowed out its reality. All the while, they ignore the idea of partnering with Metis to build local self sustaining communities and governance that is responsive to the needs and values of Metis people.

Since those dark days in British Columbia history, we now stand in the crossroads of the repatriation of the Constitution, empowering Métis-specific court cases and the emergence of social movements. Standard images that limit historic Metis identities involve the cooperation and complicity of many people. However, these images are not inevitable, and are breaking down. If we insist that our presiding elites and our institutions accept responsibility for this injustice and press for meaningful change, we in turn will have vital communities and a more inclusive province as the result.

(Stay tuned for my final article in the series where we will examine some contemporary images of BC Metis people and their challenging path to self government.)

[ilink url=”” style=”download”]Part 2 Manufactured Halfbreed in BC July 31st, 2013[/ilink]

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