Jean Teillet is the great-grandniece of Louis Riel and an Indigenous rights lawyer. She is the author of Métis Law in Canada and The North-West is Our Mother: The Story of Louis Riel’s People, the Métis Nation.
Naming is important. Every group that takes any kind of collective action gives itself a name. A hockey team names itself, as does a political party. So, too, did Indigenous peoples. Originally calling themselves the Bois-Brûlés, Louis Riel’s people chose Métis, a French word that means mixed, as the name of their nation and have used it since the 1830s. It refers to their unique culture in the Canadian North-West, with their own language, laws, history and traditions. Their stories are woven into Canadian history – stories that tell us their origins, how they lived and how they saw and continue to see themselves as a distinct Indigenous people. Everyone – from historians to the courts to the federal and provincial governments – recognize the Métis Nation as one of the Indigenous peoples of Canada.
But if you are confused about Métis identity, it is hardly surprising. The federal government has no policy to deal with recent claims of Métis identity by individuals who are seeking to gain certain advantages, such as admission to law school or hunting and fishing privileges. This has created a powerful vacuum that leaves universities, charities, governments, First Nations and the Métis Nation vulnerable to dubious claims. The Supreme Court of Canada waded into the definition of Métis in the case of Daniels v. Canada in a manner that has made the confusion exponentially worse in the three years since the verdict was delivered. To make matters worse, the rise in popularity of genealogy and accessibility to DNA testing has led more people to claim Métis identity. It’s a mess, quite frankly, and one that is growing.
The French have always used the word métis to describe people with mixed Indigenous-Canadian ancestry. The English generally called them half-breeds, which is an odious word for many reasons. We breed animals, not people. To call someone a half-breed is to call them a half-animal, and it takes little imagination to know which half is meant to be the animal. Using the term half-breed also denies any collective culture or identity. Eventually, this led English speakers to adopt the word métis and apply it to all individuals with mixed ancestry. As changes to the Indian Act resulted in numerous First Nations losing their status, some of them began to call themselves Métis as well. The word became a catch-all.
After the inclusion of the Métis in the Constitution Act in 1982 as one of the “aboriginal Peoples of Canada,” more individuals and groups began to identify as Métis. In Newfoundland, for instance, a group of Inuit mixed-race people named themselves the Labrador Métis Nation (they were quite frank in stating that they chose Métis because the Inuit rejected them). In 2010 they renamed themselves NunatuKavut. Métis was never their desired Indigenous identity and was abandoned for an Inuit identity. At least this group is Indigenous.
Since 2003, tens of thousands of individuals who previously identified as “white” are now identifying as Métis. This new indigenization movement is surfacing mostly in Quebec and Eastern Canada. These individuals now claim Métis identity because they have done a genealogy and discovered an ever-so-great Indigenous grandmother or other distant female relation. According to Darryl Leroux, a professor at Saint Mary’s University and author of the new book Distorted Descent: White Claims to Indigenous Identity, in one court case in Quebec, 75 per cent of the group claimed one Indigenous ancestor from the 1600s as their sole reason for claiming to be Métis. Twenty-five per cent relied on a non-Indigenous ancestor who was re-purposed as Indigenous to support their case. It does not seem to matter to these recent converts that some 300 years and 20 generations have passed with none of their ancestors claiming Indigenous identity.
There is no question that many Canadians have a small amount of Indigenous ancestry. But that does not justify race shifting. It does not make you Mi’kmaq today. It does not make you Métis. Indigenous identity requires a connection to a historic and contemporary community because Indigenous identity is a living collective identity. You may be estranged from that collective today, but you must point to some Indigenous community that you or your ancestors were part of at some time in the not-too-distant past. If you are only referring to a long-ago ancestor and now claiming to be Métis, there must be more. Where are the stories of your people? What did the collective name itself 300 years ago? What is their origin story? When and how did they act as a collective to advance or protect their interests? For that matter, what were their interests? All societies have some form of governance. How did their governance work? Give us specific names and dates and geography. To date, these people now claiming Métis identity have no answers to any of these questions. There is only the perpetual reference to that ever-so-great Indigenous grandmother and a claim to have hidden for more than 300 years.
As Adam Gaudry, a professor in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, has pointed out, these individuals are communing only with the dead, not the living. They are re-purposing the identities of a long-dead ancestor. Some are even asserting that the Acadians were Métis. The Acadian story is a fascinating part of Canada’s history, but the Acadians made no assertion of Indigenous identity. One cannot go back in time and shift the race of groups or individuals who made no claims to be Indigenous in their own time.
This race shifting is not an idle or harmless hobby. It weaponizes Indigenous identity for a very specific purpose: control of and access to land and resources. Prof. Leroux points out that in Quebec, one of these groups formed specifically to stop the Mi’kmaq from managing territory and another formed to stop Innu harvesting rights. The idea was simple: If you can’t stop the government from giving the land and resources back to Indigenous people, find an Indigenous ancestor in your own genealogy. Become Métis and claim the same rights to lands and resources as First Nations.
Most of these groups (now numbering more than 30 in Quebec and Nova Scotia) formed in response to the opportunity they saw created in 2003, when the Supreme Court, in a case called R. v. Powley, determined that Métis communities could possess hunting rights. Full disclosure: I was the lawyer for the Powleys. At the time, it was a helpful determination for the Métis Nation. But it opened a can of worms in Eastern Canada. Powley was not a case that was solely reliant on genealogy. Several experts agreed that there was a historical Métis community in Sault Ste. Marie.
The Eastern claims are very different. Since 2003, there have been more than 50 court cases in which individuals in Quebec and the Maritimes have claimed Métis hunting and fishing rights. The courts have rejected all of these claims. Judges have noted their “remarkable creativity” and have consistently held that claims to Métis rights require more than a genealogical claim and recent opportunistic self-identification. One judge in Quebec famously stated that “it would be easier to nail Jell-O to a wall” than find substance in these “remarkably vague” Métis claims. But still they keep coming, and such is our age of political correctness that one is not permitted to critique these claims because self-identification has become an unassailable individual right.
The Supreme Court, in the Daniels case, made it worse in 2016. The court held that all Indigenous people are within federal jurisdiction, including individuals with mixed Indigenous ancestry who self-identify as Métis separately from the Métis Nation. The court deliberately disconnected Métis individuals from any requirement for community acceptance. In the court’s judgment, self-identification and genealogy are the central requirements to be Métis. Daniels provided the necessary legal cover that has since legitimized the race shifters who began to arise after Powley.
So what is it like to be Métis today? If you are a citizen of the Métis Nation of the Canadian Northwest, very positive gains have been made as a direct result of the current government’s decision to change Ottawa’s relationship with Indigenous people, including the Métis Nation. Just this week, Minister of Veterans Affairs Lawrence MacAuley apologized on the government’s behalf to Métis veterans of the Second World War and announced $30-million in compensation. Core funding for Métis Nation governing institutions has been implemented, and land and resource negotiations have begun. Self-government process agreements have been completed with most of the governing members of the Métis Nation. These agreements will facilitate a better standard of living for all Métis Nation citizens. They are new beginnings and signal the end of 200 years of denial and neglect. They are excellent work that needs to continue.
If you have just done a genealogy and found an Indigenous ancestor from the 1600s, or a DNA test that confirms an infinitesimal percentage of Indigenous ancestry, life might also look pretty good. Your daughter can get one of those coveted spots in law school that are reserved for Indigenous people. You might get special fishing privileges from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. You might be able to stop a First Nation land settlement. You might get a job with the government or a company anxious to hire Indigenous people. All these things are happening right now – and there is no sign that this race shifting will stop.
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