"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Truth and Reconcilitation 3

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Our parish is moving toward an evening event on March 15 where we’ll bless prayer shawls, have a meal, do some drumming, some praying in Cree and consider the question of identity (at least partly through my family history, which is a story of suppressed identity in response to the racism of the era. I’m working through some of the thoughts for that talk here. It’s rambling and un-organized at this point, be warned.

The history of the Red River Métis is an instructive area to consider, for what happened to them is reflective of the overall focus of the era. Prior to the North-West rebellion, the Métis were a dominant force in what we now call Western Canada. They were the shapers of the land and the primary contact between Europeans and the Indigenous peoples. In many ways the plight of the Métis has arisen from that place, caught between the settlers and the Indigenous peoples, but not really part of either world.

After Riel’s execution (murder), the force that was the Métis scattered – much as the leaders of the rebellion scattered. I’m thinking of Gabriel Dumont, who ended up touring with Wild Bill’s western show. The Métis became a broken people, who were quickly overwhelmed by the white (and predominantly Protestant) settlers moving west from Ontario (or Upper and Lower Canada). As a result the Métis diaspora started, with the core of the community moving further westward to escape the settlers and to continue living a traditional lifestyle. When I look at the Red River census through that time, I can see that the bulk of my family relatives disappear from the Red River settlement. Some re-appear on the later census documents from further west – Prince Albert, for example. The man considered the founder of PA, James Isbister, was a relative by marriage.

It was in this era that the Métis became known as ‘the road allowance people’. Maria Campbell’s book “Halfbreed” is a startling story of growing up in that period, and particularly highlights the wide-spread racism present in the west. Road allowance people were those who lived in the band of road allowance along highways, because they had no land. Campbell’s book is startling to read of how nasty the general population was toward the Métis, and the Indigenous peoples.

The sad part of that story, is that the echoes of that racism are still present in Western Canada today. I’ve seen that our western provinces have this thinly-veiled racism that guides how we operate. It’s more hidden now because it’s not acceptable to be overtly racist, but still present in little ways. After I obtained my Métis card, formal recognition by my community of my heritage and my intention to live back into that lifestyle, the reactions of some acquaintances was telling. The comments all had the same bent – you may want to pretend that you’re somehow aboriginal, but you know that you’re not really aboriginal (with the subtext – you’re like us, not them). The people who say such things don’t even realize how that is received by someone who is grieving the lost history of family heritage suppressed…

My family suppressed that history out of self-protection. When the times turned so that being country-born was no longer a benefit, but a liability (about the time of the crushed rebellion, and the shift in the Red River from predominantly Métis/indigenous to predominantly white). Our relatives fled Red River to go westward, and we stayed and decided to live as Europeans, and the lie was born.

This is a dramatic reversal of the narrative of my family, and as far as I can discern, that continued up into modern days (meaning the 1980s).

Why was it the settlers of the late 1700’s in the west intermarried? The dominant narrative suggests that such marriages were a step up for the indigenous women, that they improved their lot in life by marrying the ‘civilized’ settlers. The reality is much different. In the early years, having access to the indigenous store of knowledge was a literal matter of survival. In later years, the intermarriage permitted the European to have access to trade with the birth tribe of the spouse. When you look at the marriage records, the other thing that strikes you is that most marriages were between rather low-ranking labourers and clerks (or a tailor in my family’s case). These settlers were the ones who were marrying up, for an aboriginal spouse gave them improved status in the European community – because of the economic status they gained through the relationships created by marriage.

That sort of arrangement, economic relationship through marriage, was well-known to the indigenous people of Canada. This was a standard practice between indigenous nations to strengthen ties, to improve trade and to reduce conflict.

So the reality is these minor functionaries working for ‘The Company’ (Hudson’s Bay) or the Northwest Company, were greatly improving their lot in life by taking an aboriginal wife. In the early days, such intermarriage was encouraged by The Company, because of the economic benefits.

This narrative is dramatically different from what I remember in school – which was the myth of European supremacy, civilizing the savages by doing them the favour of marriage.

The horrible part of that narrative is what happened when employees of The Company reached the end of their contract. They were entitled to a trip home at the end of the contract – for them. This led to a number of the settlers who decided to return to the UK abandoning their country families – in some cases returning to their existing wife and children in the UK. The abandoned spouse and children sometimes merged back into the tribe, remarried into another family. Others chose to stay.

Many of the marriages done in Canada were so-called ‘country marriages’, which followed the tradition of the First Nations. You would declare your marriage and co-habitate. The ones who decided to remain in Canada eventually had a church wedding. In my family’s case, James Anderson undertook a country marriage to Mary, a 22-year-old Saulteaux woman who worked in the same Company store. It was only about 19 years later that Mary and the children were baptised, and then church married one month later. This was typical.

There was a change in the relationship after the settlements became established, and particularly when the primarily Protestant (orangemen) settlers began arriving from points east. The policy of Empire and ethnic purity began to assert itself, and although we can see these colonial attitudes as racist today, this was the dominant mode of thought. So there was a shift from seeing the country marriages as good and necessary gradually moving to a place where the marriages became increasingly distasteful. Under those increasing pressures it was unsurprising that people began to declare their loyalties, some choosing to live as European, and some remaining Métis. The tricks of genetics made this possible, and particularly for the Scots Métis who carried fair skin and red hair. I do wonder what happened in the families when there was a genetic combination that came up as highly aboriginal.

The story is one of dramatic reversals of the narrative, for a variety of reasons. Riel, the traitor, hanged for treason, becomes the father of the Province of Manitoba. Pardoned and lauded…but still a victim of government action. My Métis family, in another reversal of the narrative, becomes Scots – a narrative that continued into the 1980s.

It even becomes clear in the records from the 1800-1900 period. My family members declare to the census taker that they are Scots. The same family members, around the same time frame, are signing Script affidavits declaring they are half-breeds…to obtain the promised land grant. It is certainly a story of ethnic expediency…but what were the pressures that made it so?

This is where the two narratives: my family and the residential schools have some parallels around the question of identity. The res schools were intended, by government policy, to strip away people’s identities to make them civilized little Europeans who would become productive members of the new body politic that was to be Canada. My family, to avoid the sting of raging racism, turned away from who they were to become white. It may have been a concious and pragmatic choice, or it may have just been an unspoken tacit shift, I’ll never know. It was inarguably a loss of identity that my daughter and I are now seeking to restore. But, it causes some problems.

Now the broader question is how many of these reversals of the dominant narrative have there been in our history? What follows closely on the heels of that question is a more disturbing one: if those elected officials of the past were convinced of the righteousness of their actions with respect to the indigenous people of Canada, what things are we doing today that we’re absolutely convinced are correct and righteous, but in 150 church groups will sit around and shake their heads saying, “How could they have thought that was right?”

The reversal of my family identity away from the truth likely permitted later family members to succeed as clergy in a church that had many racist overtones. This has been documented (the article of personal interest is the one titled “ARCHDEACON THOMAS VINCENT OF MOOSONEE AND THE HANDICAP OF “METIS” RACIAL STATUS”.

The author notes that Thomas Vincent was passed over for bishop in favour of an inexperienced priest from England, that he believes was because of the known country-born heritage of Vincent.  I’ve written about this article previously, and the really horrific comments the author collected from Vincent’s superiors…about the country-born children being stupid.  What I find particularly interesting is that both the authors of the article referenced by Prof John Long were Métis themselves, and one (my great-grandfather, Archdeacon Anderson) was related to Vincent, but there is no mention of this in the original article they penned on Vincent in 1920.

My great-grandfather’s son went on to be Bishop of Rupert’s Land (suffragen) and then on to Bishop of British Columbia, where he died too young in 1969 (likely because of the massive wounds he sustained as a chaplain with the Canadian Grenadier Guards in WW II).  He might have been the first Métis bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada…but this will likely never be known conclusively (although I have had urges to write the national church historian to ask the question – who was the first Métis bishop in Canada?)

I find it likely that the family heritage was tacitly ignored beginning in the mid-1800’s or earlier, as the tenor of relations in the settlement changed.  That was not helped by the Rebellion, as the Scots and English Métis tended to not support Riel, as they were more loyalist in their leanings.  Those who became white, and supported the state, likely reinforced that choice as the aftermath of the Rebellion hit Red River, with overt oppression of those who were obvious Métis.  There likely wasn’t even a moment of choice, but just the continuation of a trend that had started years earlier.


Written by sameo416

February 9, 2014 at 5:38 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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