The Many Ways of Being Metis By Joe Desjarlais

Metis in Canada are on the eve of unprecedented negotiations with the Federal government. Beneath the surface arguments, ideology is making way for the promise of new possibilities of coexistence between Metis and Canadians, leading to a more just, inclusive country. The onus is on governments to reset the historic Metis/Canadian relationship.

1. There is a growing recognition by all Canadians that regional or even national flash-points and the stories that support them are ideologically charged.

Governments are under heightened pressure to move away from what John Ralston Saul once referred to as false populism, and toward a more collaborative model of engagement with Canadians. False public appeals to the ‘national interest’ or villainizing dissenters by calling them enemies is on shaky ground. As Stephen Hume recently reminded us in the pipeline debate, Industry itself has found that building consensus, engaging with critics and consultation is far more effective than confrontation.

This, in my view, also includes public treatment and portrayal of aboriginal people as they add their voice to public issues. Old ‘noble or ignoble savage’ imagery must also give way, because Metis insist on being portrayed more accurately as well as having a central role in mainstream Canada’s past and future.

2. The Federal government must acknowledge that ideology is also breaking down in Metis/Canadian relations, giving way to the historic notion that ‘there are many ways of being Metis.’ It is impossible to be Metis in Canada otherwise.

Since the 19th century and Riel, Canadians and their governments have long postured the image of Metis people and their interests in opposition to the ‘Canadian interest,’ for political or economic expediency. For more on this in the BC context, read my article series called ‘The Manufactured Halfbreed.’

Since the 1980’s and the repatriation of the Constitution to include Metis, governments at all levels have been preoccupied with maintaining their ideological vision of the nature and role of Metis peoples in Canada. To this day, they continue to officially deny that there are ‘many ways of being Metis,’ which invariably shuts down the historic right of Metis communities and nations across this country to self determine and self govern.

Successive governments have attempted to act in ways that exclude and limit Metis identities in order to maintain a colonial dependency relationship and control Metis land and resources. To this end, they saw the increasing need along with co- opted Metis leaders to construct and manage the evolution of a ‘legitimate’ Metis national identity in the public imagination. This required the establishment of an inevitable future and supporting historical narratives to justify their linear, Western view of Canadian progress.

We have witnessed this with the rise of the Metis National Council in Canada and its massive supporting knowledge and cultural apparatus. These functioned as mechanisms to justify these groups as the ‘recognized’ or ‘official’ national political entities. Establishing the narrative of an ‘origin’ of a singular Metis people, with a singular Metis homeland and culture became crucial to maintaining the status quo.

In spite of government social tinkering, we are at a pivotal point where more people, including Metis themselves, recognize that appeals to a false national Metis unity based on false distinctions are breaking down. As discussed elsewhere, the problem for grassroots Metis people has always been that one can win the battle for ‘recognition’ and lose the war of ‘nationhood’ (self-determination) and this has become evident.

3. The Federal government must distance themselves from ideological stances supported by other governments in Canada, and adapt a more principled approach to Metis/Canadian relations.

In the recent BC government response to the human rights allegations as example, it was revealed that “the province recognizes MNBC as the political representative of all Metis people in BC.” The province further stated that “this view is consistent with that of the government of Canada and MNBC’s position as a governing member of the Metis National Council.”

By these entrenched statements, governments support rights based legislation and governance policies to classify people according to race. Within their rights based model, they endorse biology and genealogy and geography as determiners of Metis identity instead of cultural and historical factors. Their policies and funding arrangements censure research on BC Metis or elsewhere, outside of ‘legitimate’ philosophical orientations or politically charged perspectives.

As we evolve unchecked, I fear that governments could at some point employ “rights based recognition laws” that actually strip Metis of their as yet undetermined or unextinguished rights. This could lay the foundation for more draconian governmental censures and actions that prohibit ‘the many ways of being Metis.’

In principle, this track is reminiscent of elements of Canada’s own Indian Act, or even the South African National parties’ racially charged policy of cultural apartheid, where they employed policy and legislation to authorize governments to classify and separate people according to race.

The Province of BC for its part pretends to empower Metis people in its recent response to the human rights accusations with false populist comments that political legitimacy “must derive from Metis people themselves.” They attempt to spin the idea that their divisive high handed policies have had no consequence on the roots of Metis oppression in Canada. However, Canadians are more aware that past and current injustices in Metis communities are deliberate products of Canadian attitudes, actions, and institutional policies. The list is long, and includes the history of residential schools, systemic poverty, racism in our institutions, marginalization of Metis people and communities, and dispossession of Metis land and resources. In fact, racially charged representations of Metis have long existed in public and official rhetoric and this has influenced policy in BC, as I have explained elsewhere.

For Metis, the blowback of these policies has long worked to break apart families, fuel lateral violence, create internalized oppression and fuel ethnic differences. It could be argued that governments have in effect created and maintain ethnic Metis enclaves and obscure common ideas between differing Metis groups, First Nations and other Canadians. People have been artificially divided, not simply between rich and poor, but over entrenched differences regarding nationalism, and identity, or ways of life.

The upcoming discussions between BC Metis Federation and the Canadian Federal government impact every Canadian and the kind of country we hope for. BCMF is entering these meetings with the intention of inviting the Federal government to reset the relationship with Canada’s Metis people to a policy of coexistence and partnership.

A legitimate negotiated tripartite process is necessary to reconcile the views and principles of our constituents and communities and Metis nations in Canada with all levels of government, industry, and Canada. Once again, this includes a commitment to:

1. Proximity: There are many different ways of ‘being Métis’ and that these are not diminishing but are gathering strength and voice in Canada. This means the potential for expression of historical difference in its fullest meanings, including possibilities of a nations-to-nation capacity that supports self determination, self government and self sufficiency.

2. Translation: This negotiation is not a ‘one-time deal’ but an ongoing, positive political relationship that is dynamic. This means the re-engagement of Metis people in Canadian society and its institutions, true interdependence and sharing. A partnership model means we must commit to create and co- fund the institutional space and the structures for these principles to flourish.

On the eve of the negotiations, it is significant to remember that the world recently lost freedom fighter Nelson Mandela, a man acclaimed the world over because of his stand on human rights, inclusion and equality. In his trial, facing the death penalty, Nelson Mandela stood up with immense character and made a bold ethical statement about the kind of country he hoped for, in his day and hour. To Mandela, nationalism related to the concept of “freedom or fulfillment for African people in their own land.” Our Canadian Prime Minister attended his funeral with other world leaders, celebrated his significance, only to come back to a country he governs that has yet to reconcile with its’ own Metis people.

As we ponder the future of Metis nationalism in Canada, Nelson Mandela’s powerful and timeless words are fitting for today.

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