Unpacking “Partnerships” and Knowledge Capital

By Joe Desjarlais 

Why is the idea of “partnership” important to understand? 

The word “partnership” has been used often lately but this means different things to various groups.

In Canada, the national consensus is shifting away from ignorance and marginalization, and towards the affirmation of historic and contemporary Métis identities across Canada. Courts are affirming the constitutionality of Métis identities, Senate reports, and more recently a Special representative tasked with Métis issues, have opened up opportunities for meaningful dialogue, and the Federal Liberals are now talking about nation-to-nations relations with historic Métis communities.

While there are detractors and naysayers, it is evident that there is a movement to rebuild self-determining, self-sufficient, and self governing Métis communities and ‘nations’. Perhaps most exciting for lasting and sustainable social change, is the growing awareness that the ‘history of Canada’ must be the story of indigenous nations as ‘partners’.

How do you respond to the contests to control Metis identity? 

I recently read on social media that a Conservative MP wants Minister Carolyn Bennett to say what constitutes the Métis Nation. The acrimonious public debate has reached into almost every area of public debate including universities, where professors have had sharp disagreements, and into the blogosphere, where there have been angry social media exchanges.

There is a ‘culture war’ over Métis identity and the politics of it has been rather nasty; the war in the trenches is being fought in academic departments in Canada with some having a vested interest in ethnogenesis and the need to restrict Métis identity based on the ‘politics of rights.’ The dominant narrative forwarded by these ‘charter’ groups tends to consolidate Métis identity into a single national paradigm or marginalize Métis peoples in a footnote to the past. On the other hand, there are voices, ones that have been excluded from recognized Métis political organizations, that are attempting to expand the definition to suit their own special interest. For example, a group claiming Métis status has recently been conducting DNA studies to ‘prove’ their Métis-ness.

The polarities that are developing imply that these are the only two options if we are to move into a new era of reconciliation. But overcoming the either/or conundrum and offering a model of mutual recognition that can work for all Métis nations in Canada is the exact reasons why we at the BCMF work at the Federation to educate people about a relational history and the importance of a “partnership.”

What message would you convey to those involved in angry public social media disputes about identity politics? 

You can’t have ‘identity’ without reciprocity (ie: mutual recognition). Interestingly, it could well be argued that existing Métis representation, including Métis National Council, has contributed to this problem because of their exclusive claims to being Métis. It seems the only response to alternative claims for Métis nationhood is to ‘exclude’ all others. If these different Métis organizations were open to ‘many ways of being Métis’ they could get on with the business of supporting other communities that have legitimate claims to Métis sovereignty. But in order to do this, of course, the leaders of these organizations would have to stop playing the politics of recognition. When they break from using a contest for a limited number of rights as a form of legitimacy we may be able to get beyond the basic premises that guide their one-winner-take-all strategy.

Perhaps dialogue and cooperation would be more appropriate as a way of bringing wellbeing to Métis nations in Canada?

What are some challenges these groups with claims to ‘being Metis’ will have to answer going forward? 

I noticed that Eastern groups, who have been marginalized from the national organization claiming exclusive rights to being Métis, have made ‘treaties’ with a new national Métis organization. This new organization is attempting to regulate individual Métis identity by setting up yet another national ‘registry’. However, this does not demonstrate a different way of thinking from that of the organization they are fighting against. Limitations and problems surface when groups adopt a racial discourse and go down the road of “ethnogenesis” and “biological origins’ to define and regulate members through ‘individual rights bearing Métis citizenship criterion’. When Métis organizations adopt the standard Canadian academic theory of “ethnogenesis” as a way of defining an origin for Métis nations, they inevitably lead their constituents into a fight over Métis identity politics. To close membership based exclusively on blood, or ancestry, infringes on the notion of sovereignty and creates all kinds of logistical hurdles that do not have solutions.

These groups will all eventually have to answer “how does one determine nationhood” (who defines it and acts in its self-interest)? and “what happens when Métis communities were disintegrated via government colonial policy”?

Usage of the term “Metis” in history anecdotally is far different than a community or nation demonstrating from the historical record that they were acting in their own ‘self-interest,’ as when the Manitoba “Treaty” was negotiated.

Key words in identifying a historically constitutive Métis nation would be self-determination (with the ability to decide who has ‘citizenship’), self-sufficiency (with a land base and specific unique economic interests), and self-government (with relations of power, including laws, customs, material cultures, and an ability to defend sovereignty). In relation to the current debate on Métis identity, one of the most important elements of nationhood is not the amount of indigenous blood flowing through one’s veins but the ability for legitimate historic Métis communities to define their own citizenship.

What role does research play and why is it important as Metis communities reconstitute? 

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

If the movement toward reconciliation is also ensuring the autonomy and well-being of Métis communities and nations, however, then historic Métis 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. In order for this nation-to-nation conversation to emerge, however, Métis communities need to gather their intellectual resources and establish clear research agendas. To build sustainable nations all across Canada, we must be well informed about industry engagement, land-use histories, cultural resource practices, and invest in things like social and language recovery projects.

Communities and nations that are caught without the capacity to generate knowledge capital, which is the ability to construct our own narratives of partnership out of the primary sources of our own unique past, will be disadvantaged and unable to creatively respond to the challenges that lay ahead. Investing in a knowledge network will not happen organically; it must be an intentional strategy with enough rigour built in to challenge the dominant perspectives put forward by existing Métis institutes, the traditional academic establishment, and government policies. Imagine the powerful impact that a “made by Métis” research platform would have for Métis communities and nations, whether responding to ‘identity politics’, or advocating for Metis children in communities, or arguing at the highest levels of the Supreme court!

The BC Métis Federation recognizes the power of knowledge networks. We are currently exploring short, medium and long term strategic research plans and are investigating the possibility of a “research division”, a ‘hub’ where community members, researchers, academics, corporations, governments and others can contribute to specific projects.

We acknowledge the importance of a coherent Métis national research strategy and the eventual need to establish a ‘research endowment’ so that our efforts are sustainable and can contribute to nation-to-nation dialogues that will be open, dynamic and continuous. The BCMF knows that gathering, producing and sharing knowledge is essential to the long-term viability of Métis nations, and our intellectual resources must be available as a vital part of our community engagement, repatriation and revitalization.

What are some important national research themes coming into focus? 

In a spirit of dialogue and cooperation we are beginning to look at three specific research themes and timeframes:

Research Focus #1: The Political Philosophy of Louis Riel and other Metis Leaders: Developing a research specialization in Metis political thought and specifically the notion of a pluralistic association as represented in the Manitoba Treaty of 1870 (with broader interpretations for all Metis communities in Canada). Research Focus #2: Metis Diaspora and Kinship Communities: Establish research specialty in the various unique self-determined communities, especially in the Pacific Northwest, where there is opportunity to explore the many different ways of being Métis in Canada. Research Focus #3: Metis Reconciliation: Justice for Riel and for ‘Riels people’. The “just” conclusion to the life and memory of Louis Riel in Canada is important to Metis. A national project of this scope is also very important to many others, including the Canadian Association of Retired Teachers, an organization with over 137,000 members which has recently provided written support for this initiative.

Any final words? 

Going forward we have to have capacity for renewal and repatriation in BC and elsewhere.

It might start from the recovery of customs, the reconstitution of family kinship, and the clear demonstration of the many ‘sovereign communities’ that lived together. Metis political organizations and mainstream governments and industry will have to come to this awareness and move out of the idea of limiting and regulating Metis identities through identity politics.

The BCMF is initiating a resurgence of the historical Metis definitions of “kinship,” and advocating for Métis nations that have a sense of belonging, a clear sense of self- determination, evidence of historical difference, and the desire to live in shared relations. Rather than interpreting Métis history by its relationship to Canada, we call for Métis histories that are informed by our own shared concepts of self-determination and historical difference. Strong, equal and ongoing partnerships can only flourish and be sustained if this knowledge is utilized to provide land and resources that can become the foundation for inextinguishable sovereignty and generational sufficiency. We believe in the possibility of many Métis communities coming together as independent self-sustaining nations and we are confident in the hope that partnerships that seek the welfare of one “another” can abolish, once and for all, the winner-take-all mentality that is responsible for our marginalization and subjugation.

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