The Manufactured Halfbreed – (Part 3) Contemporary Images of British Columbia Métis By Joe Desjarlais

I began this series highlighting a few examples in British Columbia history to demonstrate how Metis identities have been contrived for political purposes. As we already discussed, governments, the media, industry and other non-governmental organizations have all mis-represented Métis, a reality that still negatively impacts Métis communities today.

A powerful set of cultural assumptions have conditioned many Canadians’ perceptions of Métis people, and these representations have supported a wilful ignorance of Métis history and culture in Canada for self serving purposes. For example, despite census figures reporting over 20,000 people who self-identify as Metis in BC’s Lower Mainland, most people I have met over the years in this region seem to know very little about Metis. Métis ‘appear’ as a hidden people in our own society; Métis are pressed into the background of Canada’s past and present. It’s estimated in the 2006 census survey by almost 60% of Métis households that their children do not have access to Metis culture and history in schools.

Furthermore, many Canadians who think they know about Metis define them through negative labels: Some Canadians define Métis by race, judging by comments like, “You don’t look Metis. You are too white”; others define them as an economic or social liability by asking questions like, “Are you guys on welfare too?” or making comments like “they are out of step with modern society.” If you spend any time on blogs or read critical Op-ed articles on Aboriginal topics you will find people who attempt to put a negative spin on Metis identity, politics and culture.

Past and present provincial and federal policy on Metis people in Canada supports the notion that Métis people are a burden on society. The result has been that in spite of the growing bureaucratization of Metis political organizations that are funded by mainstream governments, few Métis in BC experience a better quality of life. Instead, governments have grossly mismanaged their relationship with Metis people and have created dysfunctional communities by introducing racially charged policies that restrict Métis identities. The government’s goal of assimilation and integration has failed Métis peoples and the results can be seen in economically and politically marginalized Métis communities. In the second article of this series I argued that engrained cultural assumptions that work against a vital and dynamic identity for Métis peoples also influence British Columbia’s formative institutions. The media has long portrayed native people in perpetual conflict with other Canadians and has characterized their self-governance as inherently corrupt. In the early days of the Métis recognition as a provincial body, which was a challenging beginning along the bumpy path to Métis self government in BC, the now defunct British Columbia Report magazine characterized Métis aspirations with race-based headlines:

“A ‘social club’ seeking self-government: Metis groups unite to reap federal funding.” Another one read, “First the Indians, now the Metis: wherever self-government goes, monetary mismanagement seems to follow.”(1996)

In sum, lacking any real knowledge about Metis, generations of Canadians and their elected representatives have felt free to imagine our marginalization in all manner of ways and this has been related in and through popular culture. Ironically, it appears that politicians of all stripes are mired in status quo images about the peoples they purport to represent and most often then have blamed Métis for their own demise. Problematically, Metis organizations themselves have been forced to fight for funding dollars under the pretence of government consultation, all the while agreeing to increasingly limited definitions of Métis identity and in complete disregard for the many ways of being Metis.

Where do we go from here? The reality is that elements of British Columbian Métis policy to-date have not been just, beginning with BC’s entry into Confederation in 1871. In British Columbia, our colonial policies were influenced by American practices that transformed Aboriginal title into private property without the consent of First Nations. In Oregon, it was understood that the “law must benefit the white population.” Founding politicians like Governor James Douglas were shrewd businessmen who ignored British policy on the unique and prior claim of Aboriginal rights and title. In 1871, part of the terms of BC’s Confederation was that Aboriginal rights and title would remain unrecognized. Legislative assembly members in BC would never speak of rights and title and these matters were kept secret by MLA’s. It’s not as if rights and title had gone away though but it did take some 125 years and the Delgamuukw Case for BC’s government to finally recognize the Aboriginal title that they had always claimed did not exist.

Métis self-governing communities are still waiting to be recognized as having existed in BC. However, Métis people have thought that the made-in-BC Métis Accord in 2006 and the most recent Protocol earlier this year between Métis people and Canada would usher in a new era of promise. I am sure that many Métis regard this type of policy with potential because they tend to support culture and limited forms of local governance. In the meantime however, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reported lately that 27% of Metis children live in poverty, over double the national average. The ongoing denial in the face of continued failed services and other policy debacles appears to indicate that governments still believe Métis people don’t really deserve good governance because they are the “remnant of a dwindling civilization,” incapable of self government, and that they need to be ‘championed’ into a “new relationship.”

The world experienced by many contemporary Métis and First Nations communities is influenced by ideas that run deeper than policy; our challenge is not to confront misguided policies but to insist that dignity and respect inform our relationship. Canada has a long history of violating the basic human rights of Métis peoples. One of the earliest and clearest examples was Liberal Prime Minister’s Wilfred Laurier’s most famous speeches on Louis Riel in the House of Commons back in 1886 wherein he explained that the Canadian government intentionally mis-represented the Métis and, in Laurier’s startling words, “having actually forced them into insurrection.”

In Laurier’s words, “it was not the intention of the government to give to the half breeds of the North West Territories the same (Indian) rights that had been given to the half breeds of Manitoba.” Laurier explained that the government stonewalled for seven years and only relented after the first shots rang out at Duck Lake to initiate the 1885 conflict. In the process, Métis claims to Indian title in the land were subordinated to political and economic expediency of an unethical government. Consent and respect for the treaty principles should have guided this negotiation. Instead, governments employed racialized policies and overbearing paternalism to crush what they had already labelled a ‘Rebellion’.

The Federal Government did not stop at dispossession in their attempts to rid the prairies of the “Indian problem”. Between 1904 and 1917, the Liberal federal government of the day under Laurier and then after 1911 with the Conservatives under Bordon did nothing with the knowledge that thousands of native people were dying of disease, especially Tuberculosis. Over a seventeen-year career as Canada’s first Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Peter H. Bryce accumulated statistics which suggested that Canada’s Aboriginal peoples were being decimated by Tuberculosis, and that the Federal government wilfully withheld treatments that could have prevented one in seven from dying. Bryce was so convinced of the government’s guilt that in 1922 he wrote, The Story of a National Crime, that detailed both the evidence of mortality, the restrictions placed upon the publication of information, and the reluctance of the government to act, which Bryce argued resulted from their desire for “accelerated extinction.”

Our inability as a society to understand the impact of government policies that were designed to remove all Aboriginal peoples, including Métis, from Canada’s national fabric is deeply troubling. Some scholars have begun to describe the actions of Canadian authorities who knew that Aboriginal peoples were dying and did nothing to stop it even when they had the resources and expertise to do so as a cultural, if not, physical, genocide. It is horrifying to consider that the peoples Bryce was talking about were under a direct treaty relationship with the government, which made their responsibility to First Nations abundantly clear. One wonders what further research will reveal about the government’s ‘policy’ towards Aboriginal peoples, like the Métis, whose relationship is only now being defined.

We should reconsider the notion that these kinds of abuses are limited to our early beginning as a nation. Allegations of human rights violations in Canada have recently prompted the Inter-America Commission on Human Rights to begin preparations for a visit from one of their delegations. And, as the readers may well know, current governments are the focus of human rights cases among Métis people in British Columbia. Judging by the growing interaction on the BC Métis Federation website and the reporting of mainstream media outlets, these ethical issues are becoming topics of international interest. It is no longer acceptable for governments to hide behind numbers, to divert attention away from the real issues of justice, and to revert to narrow technical arguments in order to avoid responsibility.

The demands for an intentional commitment to recognize many different ways of being Métis in Canada and to honour historically grounded claims to Métis title and rights in all areas of our nation are beginning to provide a much needed counter-narrative to the persistent negative imaging of Métis people. It is unclear whether we have the courage to face the fear of the uncertain or whether we will slide back into status quo stereotypes that restrict the ability of Métis to assume a meaningful place within Confederation.

We are currently witnessing a reinvention of the relationship between Métis people and communities, First Nations, Inuit, and other Canadians. We have a shared past that we can draw upon for inspiration, a history of respect for difference that could possibly inform our relations today. However, all such narratives must begin with an affirmation of human dignity and a commitment to a sense of shared belonging. The challenges are not greater than the opportunities. Only as we figure out how to live together will Metis discard their imposed label as “halfbreeds” and grow into their roles as co-creators of this great country.

[ilink url=”” style=”download”]Part 3 Final Manufactured Halfbreed in BC August 2013[/ilink]

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