There is No “Essential” Metis Identity

By: Joe Desjarlais

For over 30 years our generation grew up only with access to the portraits dominated by one “essential” way of being Metis, but this mischaracterization is breaking down.

A fixed notion of ‘being Métis’ has developed in Canada to service a particular political institutional purpose. Funding and research models, the political structures and the policy incentives for indigenous peoples have supported a ‘particular’ understanding.

However, this political ideal is at-odds with the complexity and fluidity of Metis on-the-ground in communities.

This system of beliefs was based on the misguided idea that there is an essential Metis identity that requires Metis to think and act in unison. (1) However, this has led to a violent mischaracterization of Metis in actions, behaviors and relationships.

This has resulted in unbalanced power relations, broken relationship, children taken from communities, dysfunctional governance, lack of community accountability, profound cultural dislocation, continued subjugation and land dispossession.

What is clearer is that ‘being Metis’, wisely interpreted, cannot be understood and must not be trimmed to fit within the mainstream government-Metis National Council framing story.

There is a movement away from tokenism or top-down ‘politicized’ approaches by Canadian governments, institutions or industry and a shift toward ensuring that knowledge partnerships, agreements, policies or legislation are accountable to what is right/best for each local Metis community.

Decisions must represent legitimate grassroots interests, as well as integrate unique Metis community traditions and laws grounded in proper actions, behaviors and relationships.

A large part of the process of partnership is helping governments and industry and institutions understand a language of Metis protocol, their current traditions and their future aspirations. For Metis, traditional knowledge and self-understandings are rooted in communities “in their own right”.

The 2013 Report of the Senate Standing committee on Metis identity amounted to a government mandate to partner with local Métis communities so that these communities can guide and support the production and dissemination of knowledge capital. One of the more exciting elements of the Senate Report’s ‘strategy’ is the recognition that there must be a strong “appropriately resourced” research component that must include Métis voices and input.

Of course, the challenge here is to interpret these resources and oral histories in ways that support the vitality and well-being of local Métis community formation and repatriation.

In British Columbia it is now rather simplistic to think of Metis as an extension of a unified (or pure) Métis community that emanated out of Red River. The diaspora approach, which is perhaps somewhat accurate, may not characterize or accurately represent the complexity of a self-determined people who formed a collective identity in BC and acted in their own self-interest. Research is important and more research partnerships are needed. This must consider the ‘complexity and fluidity of Métis’ on the ground in specific local communities.

The very notion of adaptability and flexibility made the community what it desired to be. When a Métis identity became ‘fixed’ it ceased to ‘be Métis’.

The fact remains that there is an international movement toward ‘partnership’ and in prioritizing the future of First, Metis and Inuit communities/nations. The BC Metis Federation has long been advocating for mutual recognition that can work for a plurality of Métis communities/nations in Canada.

These unique Metis communities matter because they provide us a historical and living alternative to the confining government – Metis National Council narrative in which our country and its institutions live too much of the time.

If the movement toward reconciliation is ensuring the autonomy and well-being of Métis communities and nations, then historic Métis communities/nations need to start acting as equal partners. By respecting each other we can all engage in a national conversation that can bring about mutually beneficial outcomes.


Legal academic John Borrows was named the 2017 Killam Prize winner in Social Sciences by the Canada Council for the Arts for his extensive research. Borrows wisely states, “Indigenous peoples live in the midst of complex circumstances, there is no “essential” Indigenous identity that requires indigenous people to think and act in unison.”

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