"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

2013 Alberta Aboriginal Youth Achievement Awards

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Friday night we gathered as a family with some dear friends to watch our daughter receive an award for academic achievement, in the 2013 AAYAA. It was also the first time she and I walked out in public “sashed”, or wearing our Metis sashes.

It’s hard to describe as a parent the thrill at watching your daughter, who you know has worked so hard, be recognized for that work. Even more special (and intimidating) was to be called an aboriginal ‘role model’ by so many of the speakers and presenters.

As one person (reported below) stated, for many Metis who were unaware of their heritage, those moments were often described as ‘coming out of the closet’. That was certainly my experience. low size 3

As my daughter mentioned in her acceptance speech, we have felt an acute loss of heritage. Our family didn’t suppress our heritage, but it apparently was never mentioned. When my father mentioned it in passing in about 1989, I was shocked. My memories (as frail as human memory can be) was that when I asked about family heritage I heard stories about Scots, English, German…and even lots about our family involvement with ‘The Company’, the Hudson’s Bay Company. There is not a single glimmer of a memory about being told of our aboriginal heritage. Even discussions about the big Red River Cart in my hometown had nary a mention about that symbol in our history.

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Now, I’m not angered by this. I think I understand exactly the survival instinct that led, in about 1890, to that part of our history being set aside – not by intention, but by neglect. That era in Canada’s history is a dark one for the overt racism and persecution that was taking place in Western Canada. There were periods of time when it was not safe to declare oneself of mixed blood in the Red River Settlement, as it could lead to a beating or worse.

What strikes me particularly about the teaching I received in grade school on that topic, was how all of my memories of the Metis and Riel were all negative. These were upstart revolutionaries who had no idea just how good they had it at the benevolent hand of Mother Canada. The reality, as the history shows, is that the taking up of arms was a last resort in order to protect a people.

The other shocker for me is how, even if I had been raised knowing that I was Metis, I wouldn’t have told anyone about it for fear of being ridiculed.  Even today it’s not always safe to acknowledge, as people sometimes respond ‘how quaint’ or worse.  A person of similar descent once told me that he would use a mention of his heritage as a test of attitude, and he was dismayed how many times people’s attitudes would shift after they knew he was aboriginal.  For those Metis (like me) that look totally European (except for our teeth, perhaps), and have avoided the racism, it leaves me feeling an even larger obligation to stand and declare that heritage now.

So how is that history squared today? Riel has been pardoned (but an execution can never be undone), Metis have been acknowledged at law as an aboriginal people. Yet, in many ways we remain a people in name alone…much like any other ethnic group in the Canadian context.  As David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Metis Federation noted in the interview, the Mennonites were given land and a chance to prosper, and look at how they turned out.  What would have happened had the Metis been given the same opportunity?

Yet, the federal government, in arguing against the Manitoba Metis Federation’s case at the Supreme Court in December 2011, were using the same arguments that had been used for 140 years: the right to the land had been extinguished through a grant of land. There was no further obligation on behalf of the crown, it had done its due duty.

In a startling decision (I literally swore out loud when I read the summary) the Supreme Court found partly in favour of the Metis, making a declaration that the Crown had failed in its duty of honour with respect to the section 31 (of the Manitoba Act) grant of some 1.4 million acres of land. In a 6 to 2 decision, the dissenting justices rightly pointed out that this is making brand new law, effectively eliminating the concept of limitation periods in cases where the honour of the crown is engaged.  The decision runs to 144 pages, so not a short read.  The court specifically mentioned the federal government’s use of the same arguments in their reasoning as to why the usual limitations period did not apply.

My first thought, on hearing the news, was not ‘where’s my land?’ but rather that it finally felt that we had a real existence in this nation. The Metis, as a people, have been recognized by the court to a degree that surpasses the window-dressing of a pardon for Riel. It is a form of home coming, and an undoing of many grave injustices.  While Riel has been formally acknowledged as the founder of Manitoba, now Riel’s people have received similar acknowledgement.

So Friday night was even more poignant for us, watching our dear daughter be recognized for hard work and leadership. Rather than a mere historical footnote in the big book of Canadian history, it now felt like we could claim a real part of that nation-building in a tangible and real way.

To all the other youth who were honoured, congratulations.  I was left completely in awe of the things you have accomplished – from an equestrian champion, to an addict now changing lives, a gifted photographer, pianist, dancers, and those who have achieved great things in their career…it left a completely different perspective on Canada’s aboriginals (First Nations, Metis and Inuit) than I recall from any of my early schooling.


Written by sameo416

March 10, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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