With the upcoming Métis Identity Symposium on May 11, questions of Métis identity have assumed international interest. To many, Métis identity has come of age. I suppose that some will be preoccupied with the ideal of defining and controlling the real Metis. However, Metis identity, whether individual or collective, is influenced by various ideas. I can think of three themes to consider as we move forward.
First of all, Métis identity is complicated. Over the years, combinations of ideas like race, geography, economics, nationalism, aboriginal rights, and of course diverse languages, cultures, ethnicities and traditions have influenced how Métis define themselves. For example, some Metis identify by their blood quantum of native ancestry. To some, the real Metis are the ancestors of buffalo hunters in Western Canada. Others imagine themselves in the language of Métis entrepreneurs or uber capitalists, with participation in the global economy. To yet others, its about “bread and butter” approaches, local sustainability. Some prefer a centralized political nationalism. Others prefer flat leadership structures and emphasis on local governance. Some look to the courts and legal minutia to tell them who they are. Some desire a full third order of government. Then there are others who envision the real Metis as a full scale indigenous rights revolution. Some look to history for an expression of the treaty relationship. I know others who focus more on their unique music, dress, language or spirituality.
Secondly, Métis identity is in constant flux. Think of constant movement. Even our most distinguished institutions reflect this. For instance, courts have flip-flopped over the years, and shift over time. The Supreme Court Powley ruling in 2003 was more restrictive. Everybody started talking about being “Powley compliant.” Then the Daniels ruling came out in 2013 with a divergent view on Métis identity, a more inclusive approach.
Politicians also demonstrate this change. Tony Belcourt, a retired Ontario Métis politician, once “dismissed Metis in other provinces as not genuine because their ancestors did not live in separate settlements.” It appears that in his retirement he has shifted away from earlier “fixed” definitional approaches. Now retired, he recently conceded, “I write to suggest that we now consider the geographic or territorial extent of the Métis Nation Homeland, not in terms of fixed positions taken at various points in our history, but on the basis of our evolving experience and knowledge.”
Finally, Métis identity has an ethical component. In mainstream Canada, we stumble over old race based ideas that get in the way of a shared future. In our foundational social myths in Canada, ideas were employed to place Metis into the political, economic, social and cultural margins of Canadian society. It was not about the Métis, or their historical perspectives and contributions. They were rebranded as the voyageur, traders, trappers, allies. Depending on who controlled the conversation, they were needed but not wanted. A subsection of humanity. Dependent and thus improvable.
Nowadays, Métis have been affirmed in the Constitution and in our courts, but old ideas still set the terms for our encounters. For instance, “If they are politically active as Metis, then this must mean that they are anti- business.” They could “never really govern themselves.” Judging by our current state of affairs, we have a troubling history of telling each other to be Metis in a certain way or “you are not our people.”
We know that current governments and other institutions get it wrong when they coerce Métis people into a singular definitional approaches to suit dominant power interests. Métis identity doesn’t mesh well with dominant political, legal and economic structures, but that’s not an excuse for those who claim to lead to do nothing or blame others, a form of convenient neglect.
Instead of attempting to fixate a particular kind of definition, its time to meander down the pathway to affirming and including each other’s perspectives, and tossing out the coercive bits. Remember that in history, designations were employed to “bring them under control.” I like to think about being Metis as a process of slowly building a consensus in policy that finally reflects our many realities in this country.
Hopefully the Métis Identity Symposium can set us in this healthier direction, spurring a public conversation that includes every Canadian. Broadening our definitions to other perspectives, including ones we disagree with could be, if handled correctly, a turning point in this country.
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