Skip to main content

Tamara Macpherson Vukusic is the author of Obittersweet: Life Lessons from Obituaries.

Open this photo in gallery:

Portrait of Annie Bannatyne, great-great-grandmother of author Tamara Vukusic.Oil painting from the collection of Tamara Vukusic/Photo by Nat Anfield

Annie Bannatyne inspired a young Louis Riel when she publicly horsewhipped a political activist for publishing racist comments about Métis women. She was also my great-great-grandmother. So why didn’t I hear about her until I was 40 years old?

My grandmother learned from a young age to relegate the strong Indigenous women in her family to the back seat. Or to give them no seat at all. Which is why the oil painting of Annie Bannatyne, the very grandmother she helped care for in her childhood home in Cannington Manor, Sask., lived in her attic under a sheet.

In her 2019 book The North-West Is Our Mother, author and Indigenous rights lawyer Jean Teillet writes, “By the 1950s the term ‘Métis’ was a dirty word on the prairies.” She adds that some Métis shied away from their identity because of the prejudice they experienced. This must have been true of my grandmother, who bypassed her chokecherry wine and bannock recipes to bake European-influenced mincemeat tarts and shortbread.

By the time I turned 30, I had lived in three provinces and one territory. Feeling a sense of obligation, I lugged around the oil painting found in my grandmother’s attic with my name written on the back in her arthritic scrawl. After each move I tucked the painting of the woman – with the long, black hair tidily pinned – in a place where her stern gaze wouldn’t find me.

It was my mom’s cousin who first told me the full story of Annie Bannatyne. I was almost 40 with two toddlers, and captivated by my Métis heritage. But I was too tired to further research Annie, whose life story lay in the Manitoba Archives four provinces away.

When our youngest son was 11, he chose her as the subject of his school Heritage Fair project. I’d peer over his shoulder as he knit together her life story with the help of Manitoba Historical Society records available online. After he went to bed, I would sit at the computer and continue to pore over details of Annie’s life. She and her husband Andrew were the first non-Hudson’s Bay Co. merchants in the Red River. She was instrumental in fundraising for, and founding, the Winnipeg General Hospital. And she gave birth to 10 children over a span of 20 years, outliving seven of them.

But it was the whip-wielding Annie that I lived through vicariously. The Bannatynes frequently hosted others in their home behind their general store in the Red River Settlement. After an organizer of the Ontario-centric Canada First party, Charles Mair, enjoyed Annie’s hospitality, he wrote a letter that was published in the Toronto Globe referencing the “homely half-breeds of the Red River,” among other derogatory comments about women of mixed blood. When he next showed up in her store, Annie appeared brandishing a horsewhip. She grabbed Mair by the nose and gave him a half-dozen licks with the whip, while shouting, “That’s how the women of Red River treat those who insult them.” By nightfall word of the whipping had travelled across the countryside. Later, Louis Riel included a line in a song he wrote, giving credit to Annie’s whipping as a signal that the time was ripe for the Red River Resistance of 1869.

My heart sank when one of my kids read Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography and there was no mention of Annie. I was upset that our two boys were learning a history of Canada where the only superheroes were men. I felt robbed of not only Annie, but the other strong Métis women, who until very recently have been largely absent from Canadian history books.

I desperately wanted to share the story of Annie, but around this time award-winning writer Joseph Boyden was accused of Indigenous cultural appropriation. Like Mr. Boyden, I have benefited from white privilege since birth. And so I found myself asking: “Am I Métis enough?”

Still, I felt a responsibility to Annie, whose contributions to early Manitoba were overshadowed and dismantled by colonialism. So in 2018, I reached out to our local Métis community in Kamloops, Two Rivers Métis Society, and soon after applied to become a member of Métis Nation British Columbia (MNBC).

I’ve contemplated the “why” for connecting with my Métis community. Among the questions I ask myself are: Am I trying to compensate for my grandmother’s denial of her Métis heritage? Am I craving a sense of belonging to a culture and a people? Do I risk taking more than what is rightfully mine through storytelling? I think the answer is “yes” to all of these questions.

There have been assumptions made by others about the benefits this provincial membership comes with. I often explain that unlike First Nations, Métis have citizenship rather than status. Historically Métis all belong to one Métis Nation and that is still true today. Métis and Inuit are not considered First Nations under the Indian Act; however, Métis are recognized as Indigenous under Section 35 of the Constitution Act (1982).

Métis citizenship does not entitle one to university tuition, medical and dental benefits and tax exemptions. The benefits that have a potential dollar value to MNBC members must be applied for and are awarded based on applicant income and need. These include child-care subsidies, training grants and subsidized renovations to the homes of seniors. The one benefit with a dollar value that I do qualify for is free admission to the Glenbow Museum in Alberta and the BC Royal Museum.

As a member of MNBC, I have the privilege of participating in provincial and local Métis governance. This provincial non-profit offers a large and growing list of supports, resources, education and opportunities for people to celebrate their Métis heritage. Two River Métis Society is the backbone of all things Métis locally, like Monday-night beading with an elder and the ceremonial sashing of high-school and university grads.

But lately I’m starting to wonder if I have a rightful place as a member of our Métis community. In September, 2021, the Manitoba Métis Federation announced that it was leaving the Métis National Council because of “the nearly 80 per cent of non-Métis Nation Citizens in their registry.” The ensuing debate about membership, and who is and who isn’t Métis, has caused divisions among the various provincial Métis organizations.

Adam Gaudry, historian and assistant professor in the department of Indigenous studies at the University of Saskatchewan, uses the term “race shifters” to dub those who, after they discover a genealogical connection to a Métis ancestor, claim they always felt Métis. In his paper communing with the dead (link as in current piece), he said that some he called the “new Métis” were leveraging their new identity under the pretense that their ancestors hid their Métis identity because of racism.

Did I grow up in a home with fiddling, spoon-playing and the Red River Jig? No. Do I feel that I missed educational or career opportunities on the basis of cultural discrimination? No. Have I ever felt that my voice was discounted because I am a visible minority? No.

Do I feel that I have a responsibility to give rise to the lost voices of my Métis grandmothers whose contributions were overshadowed, undercelebrated and are only now finding their rightful place in Canada’s history? Damn right I do.

A photocopy of Annie’s scrip (a document issued by the Canadian government, redeemable for land or money, given to Métis people living in the West in exchange for their land rights) is one of the few material things left that firmly tie me to my Métis roots. However, the records from the paternal side of my family, dotted with Scottish, Irish and English men, include a four-metre-long typeset family tree from Ireland dating back to kings in 1400, a plaid-cloaked coat of arms, and dozens of fancy cabinet card photographs that made the lengthy trip across the ocean with their owners. These glitzy items are like gold for elementary-school Heritage Fair projects.

But who will champion the family stories that come without glitz? What can we do to encourage Canadians with Métis roots to discover, celebrate and share the stories of their forebears without subjecting them to the scrutiny that leaves them wondering, “Am I Métis enough?”

Last year in The Globe and Mail, Michelle Good wrote that “being a member of a community is much more than finding a blood link from long ago.” But for many Métis citizens, this is the thread that connects us to our thriving community. Métis citizenship is established by verifying Métis ancestry. Genealogical documentation confirms the applicant’s connection to the “Historic Métis Nation Homeland and the founders of the First Métis Nation.” Applicants must complete the application process set out by the Métis Nation Governing Member in the province they live in.

With the culture of many Métis women eclipsed by that of their European husbands, we now have the opportunity to attempt to pick up where they left off and celebrate that which was lost for many years. Even the Manitoba Métis Federation with concerns about the too-generous definition of Métis acknowledges “a genealogy is more than a revelation of a family’s legacy. … It is a reclamation of identity which many felt the need to hide over generations.”

As a 16-year-old girl, I was exploited by a trusted adult. Had Annie been spoken of and celebrated during those years, I might have kicked some serious ass. There is a genetic fortitude that is rooted even more deeply than genes, and that is a story proudly told again and again, fuelling those who hear it with strength and resolve. The stories of Annie, and countless other Métis heroes, must be told to bring fortitude to those of us who follow in their footsteps. And for those who will follow in our footsteps.

Can we agree that the growing number of people staking claim to their Métis citizenship is a good thing? As more stories about Métis people are told and celebrated, we are gifted the opportunity to rediscover them. These role models, in some cases relegated to attics for a century or more, would want us to appreciate their strengths and, in doing so, see that we too are inherently strong. Regaling their stories will only serve to make us – and our Métis culture – stronger. When it is suggested that Métis citizens are under false pretenses, it dissuades prospective champions of our Métis community from reconnecting and rebuilding.

So what does this Métis-Jewish-Scottish-Irish-English-German Canadian do in response to her question “Am I Métis enough?” She hangs the oil painting of her whip-wielding Métis grandmother in her family room and regales others with stories that contribute to the rewriting of a history of Canada that includes Annie. She puts pen to paper to contemplate a question that has niggled at her for years, hoping to nudge others to conclude, “I am Métis enough.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify Adam Gaudry’s writings.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Interact with The Globe