Candidates running in several ridings in Eastern Canada have been thrust into the middle of a debate over who can call themselves Métis.
The number of Canadians self-identifying as Métis has surged in the last decade, with many individuals who had previously identified as white now pointing to genealogical research to back up their claims of Indigeneity.
Historian Darryl Leroux, author of the book Distorted Descent: White Claims to Indigenous Identity, has led the charge against them, saying they are opportunistic “race-shifters.” Other critics say the growing number of individuals self-identifying as Métis pose a threat to hard-won rights for the historic Métis Nation and other Indigenous groups.
The issue has been especially fraught since 2016, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Métis were the responsibility of the federal government, which meant they could be eligible for benefits such as improved housing and health care.
“Being Métis is not just being mixed,” said Will Goodon, the minister of housing for the Manitoba Métis Federation. “You can’t just find a long-lost ancestor and that makes you a citizen of a nation."
To be Métis, according to the Métis National Council, a person must self-identify as Métis, be distinct from other Indigenous peoples, have ancestry in the historic Métis Nation — which originated in the 18th century when Indigenous women in northwestern North America started families with European fur traders — and be accepted by the Métis Nation. This is the definition the federal and provincial governments and courts have leaned on.
The census has no rigid definition, though, and thousands of others have taken it to mean being of mixed race: European and Indigenous. And so between 2006 and 2016, Statistics Canada reported a 51 per cent surge in the self-identified Métis population. The increase in the Atlantic provinces and Quebec was 124 per cent and 149 per cent, respectively.
This meant celebrations of the Supreme Court decision were tempered with concerns that individuals with only one distant Indigenous relative might claim to be Métis to get social housing, scholarships or positions reserved for Indigenous people — even qualify for tax exemptions one day.
Clément Chartier, president of the Métis National Council, which represents the Métis Nation, worries about candidates with contested claims to being Métis running in the federal election. He says they “pose significant problems for us, because they bring bad philosophy and bad self-understanding to the greater debate."
Céline LaQuerre, the Conservative candidate in the Montreal-area riding of Dorval–Lachine–LaSalle, was lying back in a chair when her dentist, who had studied dental anthropology, posed a question that became a defining moment in her life.
“Which First Nation were your ancestors?” he asked. He told her that she had dental traits “connected to native heritage.”
Ms. LaQuerre had been raised as a white woman in New Brunswick, but had occasionally heard tales of possible Indigenous ancestry in the family when she was a child. Now, more than 20 years after that dentist appointment, she self-identifies as Métis.
In Ms. LaQuerre’s case, a genealogy study her aunt had done revealed an Indigenous ancestor. The study of her aunt’s background found a grandfather who married a Mi’kmaq woman. Ms. LaQuerre became a member of the Aboriginal Community of Maniwaki Canada in 2011.
Becoming a registered member has made her more assertive about her Indigeneity, she said. “Now it’s confirmed. It’s a known fact that this is part of my heritage.”
Prof. Leroux says 65 groups in Eastern Canada make dubious claims to being Métis, including Ms. LaQuerre’s. Several sprung up after the Supreme Court decision, and none have won court cases in which they’ve sought recognition as Métis.
In his book, Prof. Leroux traces the origins of organizations like the Métis Nation of the Rising Sun, which began as a nine-member hunting-rights group that opposed an agreement that allowed the Mi’kmaq to hunt and fish in a part of the Gaspé peninsula in Quebec. Citing testimony from a court case in which a founding member sought to be recognized under the constitution as Métis, Prof. Leroux writes that the group found "a political strategy to oppose Indigenous rights in the region: to become an 'Indigenous nation’ claiming its own aboriginal rights.”
The group now has thousands of members, and Prof. Leroux has raised alarms about one of its chiefs, Jocelyn Rioux, running for the Green Party in Rimouski-Neigette–Témiscouata–Les Basques.
Mr. Rioux says he “had a wish to join an Indigenous community" since he was young, but “lived like a white person” until his 30s. He joined the Métis Nation of the Rising Sun after the federal government recognized the Métis as Indigenous people, and says the Métis in the Prairies “don’t have any choice but to accept us” given the high population in the Gaspé region.
“Our work isn’t to demand rights and territory, it’s to help people reconstruct their identity,” he said, dismissing Prof. Leroux’s accusation that he is a white man trying to control hunting and territory as “nonsense." Through his own research, he found a Huron-Wendat ancestor on his mother’s side and a Nipissing ancestor on his father’s side, both from the 1600s.
Based on this rationale, millions more people could claim to be Métis, because virtually every white Québecois person has a tiny bit of Indigenous ancestry, Prof. Leroux points out.
Amanda Kistindey’s bio on the Green Party website had described her as “Acadian-Métis,” but she deleted that after inquiries about her heritage. In an e-mail, Ms. Kistindey, running in Toronto’s Don Valley West, said: “As I did not grow up on a reservation and have not maintained any rapport with my own familial band, I lay no claim to being a member of (or even embraced by) that community. While I am a Métis by virtue of my heritage, I do not speak for or on behalf of any Indigenous group.”
Kathy Laframboise, a Conservative candidate for Ahuntsic–Cartierville in Quebec, who is a member of the Native Alliance of Quebec, and was identified by her party as Métis, ended a phone interview with The Globe and Mail when asked about her claims of Métis identity. Later, in an e-mail, she said, “The thing is, my mom is Métis but not my father. So I don’t know if I can say that I’m a Métis.”
To Cam Holmstrom, whose Métis roots go back to the Red River Settlement, even if these individuals aren’t elected, being nominated by their parties validated their identity claims.
“It does give them legitimacy, because now they’re attached to [these parties] and they have said, ‘We approve of this person, they’re okay by us,’” he said. “I don’t know how it is you can say that you support the rights of Mi’kmaq on the East Coast and at the same time have people running for you who are openly trying to undermine that very same legitimacy.”
The Green Party did not respond to a query about the vetting process for candidates who claim Indigeneity. A spokesperson for the Conservatives said they “take candidates at their word on these sorts of things.”
Dot Anderson, who is from the Gift Lake Métis Settlement in Northern Alberta, said that, during nominations, candidates who say they are Métis should be pressed for documentation proving they are part of a legitimate organization. If they can’t provide it, “the parties should say, ‘You can’t go out there and say that.' That’s anti-reconciliation, right?”
Ms. LaQuerre disagrees that Métis status should be so exclusive. She points out that Mi’kmaq women — like the one her aunt traced in her genealogical research — lost their Indian status after they married white men.
“They were outcasts and lost their status, and couldn’t honour and practice and assume their identity," she said. "So if we’re starting to negate this, what else?”
With a report from Les Perreaux