"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

A Talk on Metis Heritage

leave a comment »

My Metis Heritage – a Talk at St John the Evangelist Anglican

15 March 2014

OK – I’m feeling ambivalent about this talk tonight.  This is partly because I’m a private person.  The second reason is I’m not too sure the story is that interesting.

I should stop and say that we’re meeting tonight on the traditional lands of the Treaty Six people, and the traditional lands of the Metis Nation of Alberta and we give thanks for tonight’s use of the land.  I can welcome you as a Treaty Six person, because we’re all treaty people – we either represent the settler, or the indigenous.  I can also welcome you on behalf of the Metis, because I’m a member of the Metis Nation of Alberta.  When I heard this said in past years, I’ve always scoffed at the welcome – what’s the point?  I always thought.  I’ve realized, mostly through accepting my own aboriginal self, that this is an important part of the narrative that we are all a part of, and it is an important reminder that we are engaged in the action of sharing the land.  This is part of the story that we’ll travel together through this evening.  What I’ll be talking about is the concept of seeing our history and ourselves using what Mi’kmaq elder Albert Marshall calls ‘two-eye seeing’, seeing things with an Indigenous eye, and with a western or settler eye.  As a product of the intermarriage between fur traders and First Nations, I’m coming to realize that this ‘two-eye’ seeing is actually the story of my life.

The first time I was told that I was Metis was in my early 20’s – my father and I were walking down a street in my hometown, Selkirk, Manitoba, just a block off the Red River (which figures prominently in my family history).  He was explaining to me how our family dentist, Dr Slogan, had told my dad about the roots of my cousin’s wisdom teeth: “They were hooked,” Dr Slogan said with a scandalous tone, “the only place I’ve seen hooked roots is with Indians.”  My dad told our dentist that our family was Metis, which explained the hooked roots.  My first response was, “Hey! I had hooked roots too!  A second later when what he has said sunk in, I asked, “What do you mean we’re Metis?”  (his response – have I never told you that?)

So, this is a tale of hooked roots, a tale of a family heritage lost and discovered, and as I started to unravel the veil that had been hung over this part of my heritage, a tale of racism, discrimination, boatloads of shame and denial of self.  This is not a comfortable tale, but one that describes my own journey of having to revise most of my world view as it related to who I am as a person.  As I talk about this journey, I’ll weave in some of the history of my people, and particularly the history of the Metis of the Red River Settlement in Manitoba.  I’ll also talk a bit about the law, as court decisions and legislation that make terminology a bit of a minefield.  This is a story of identity, and as the residential school history is all about loss of identity, there are touch points with my personal story.

Canadian writer Thomas King, in his excellent book, “The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America” sets out that there are really two types of Indians in North America: Dead Indians, which are the ones that settlers are most comfortable with.  These are the Indians found in buckskin and feathers, at pow-wows and in TV commercials and movies, the Indians who call their white bosses, “Khemosaba”, and understand perfectly the basics of supply side capitalism.  We’re comfortable with dead Indians because they fit the stereotypes, and more importantly, once the movie is over they go away and disappear.

By contrast, King writes, we’re not so good with live Indians.  These are the ones that we share our workplaces with, our neighbourhoods with, and the ones we still need to figure out how to share the land with.  They are an intriguing, perplexing and annoying part of life in the New World, and the real problem was they didn’t die out, they weren’t assimilated or enfranchised into the white body politic, and they won’t stay safely stored away on reservations or rural backwaters until the next time we need some dead Indians to perform a hoop dance to celebrate Canadian multiculturalism.

King wrote a poem called, “I’m not the Indian you had in Mind” [link to a great video performance of the poem] that talks about the settler culture’s typically stereotypical view of what makes a ‘real’ aboriginal – and this is invariably all about the ‘dead Indian’ like the well-proportioned Disney Pocahontas .  King is a master satirist and starts his poem with a lampooning of the Hollywood aboriginal, those dead Indians (just reading a portion): [the full poem is at this site, you have to scroll down]

I’m Not the Indian You Had in Mind
– Thomas King

I’m not the Indian you had in mind
I’ve seen him
I’ve seen him ride
A rush of wind
A darkening tide
With wolf and eagle by his side
His buttocks firm and well defined
My God he looks good from behind
But, I’m not the Indian you had in mind

I’m not the Indian you had in mind
I’ve heard him
I’ve heard him roar
The warrior wild in the video store
The movies that we all adore
The clichés that we can’t rewind
But, I’m not the Indian you had in mind

[…King then talks about the live Indians]

I’m the other Indian
The one who lives just down the street
The one you’re disinclined to meet
The Oka guy, remember me?
Ipperwash? Wounded Knee?
That other one
The one who runs the local bar
The CEO, the movie star
The elder with her bingo tales
The activist alone in jail
That other Indian
The doctor, the homeless bum
The boys who sing around the drum
The relative I cannot bear
My father who was never there
He must have hated me I guess
My best friends kid with FAS
The single mom who drives the bus
I’m all of these, they are us

You may hear those words as harsh, and they are, but these are King’s words and they ring true for the way that settler-driven Canada has sought to control and eliminate Indigenous peoples in Canada.  That started back in the 1800’s, but it continues today with legislation being passed this year.  I’m not going to be political tonight, but be very aware that things have not really changed that much…except the live Indians have organized, and they’re here to stay.  [you can hear King’s 2003 Massey lecture on storytelling at this link]

The same thing is very true with the Metis, and I should take a side trip at this point to talk about some definitions.  What these words mean is important, and you need to be aware that some of these terms I’ve been shoveling around have specific legal meaning in Canada.  So, I started talking about King’s book about inconvenient Indians – Indian as a term is almost universally regarded in Canada as a title imposed by the government.  This is a legal term, and so you have status and non-status Indians, referring to a person’s registration status under the Indian Act.  Metis are not dealt with in the Indian Act.  This is perhaps a surprise since one of the first questions I’m usually asked when I tell someone I’m Metis is this: “Was your mother or your father an Indian?”  I thought this was just me, but I see now this is a common part of the experience.

In Canadian terms, the Metis only regained a legal standing in 1982 with the Constitution Act, when the term ‘aboriginal peoples’ was defined in section 35 to include Indians, Inuit and Metis.  This was an important day, because up to that point as far as the government was concerned, Metis entitlement to Indian rights had been fully extinguished by the Manitoba Act of 1870, which allocated 1.4 million acres of land to be given to Metis adults and children with the goal of extinguishing their Indian title.  Next on the list of big legal events was a Supreme Court of Canada decision in 2003 called the Powley decision.  The Powley’s – a father and son hunting team – shot a moose out of season in Ontario, and claimed traditional harvesting rights to exempt themselves from the usual laws concerning the taking of wild game.  Powley is an important decision, because the court set out for the first time a kind of test to help determine if someone is Metis.  There are three main steps: 1) you have to self-declare as Metis; 2) you have to demonstrate a historic family connection to one of the traditional Metis communities (Ontario west to northern BC); 3) you have to be accepted by a Metis community.  From Powley:

The term “Métis” in s. 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 does not encompass all individuals with mixed Indian and European heritage; rather, it refers to distinctive peoples who, in addition to their mixed ancestry, developed their own customs, and recognizable group identity separate from their Indian or Inuit and European forebears.  A Métis community is a group of Métis with a distinctive collective identity, living together in the same geographical area and sharing a common way of life.  The purpose of s. 35 is to protect practices that were historically important features of these distinctive communities and that persist in the present day as integral elements of their Métis culture.

This is significant because the second most common question asked of a Metis is what percentage aboriginal they are.  The honest answer for most of us is I have absolutely no idea – in the small community my family came from in Red River, the family trees intermarry so frequently and everyone and I mean literally everyone, is listed as Metis – or in that day the much more pleasant term ‘country-born’ or the less pleasant ‘half-breed’ or if they wanted to be really precise in my case, “Scotch-Breed” (as opposed to English-Breed or French-Breed).  To tease out a mathematical ‘blood quantum’ is not possible.

So where did these people called Metis come from?  Not long after first contact, there started to be the phenomena of intermarriage between the mostly young male employees of the fur companies and the local First Nation women.  Some of this was just nature taking its course, but this practice of intermarriage was a long-standing tradition with the Indigenous peoples.  If you wanted to establish good relations with a new group of trading partners, intermarriage was a good way to start.  The intermixing happened between those who worked for “The Company” (in capitals), being the Hudson’s Bay Company, or its main competitor, the North West Company.  When I mention “The Company” (in capital letters), I’m talking about the Hudson’s Bay company, which was the group my family was loyal to.  These European young men signed on for five year contracts of service.  The earliest fur traders in the east were the French voyageurs, who gave us the French branch of the Metis nation.  Later those traders were mainly Scots and English, which gave us the English branch of the Metis nation.

If you read John Ralston Saul’s book, “A Fair Country”, he talks about the mythical narrative that Canadians tend to believe about our history.  It goes something like this: a long, long time ago, there were small bands of wandering savages in North America.  They barely made of go of it, and weren’t really advancing at all.  It wasn’t until the arrival of the heroic adventurers from Europe, who brought technology and science and books and religion – in short, civilization in all its glory, that these nomadic bands started to develop.  If not for the heroism of those adventurers and settlers, this country would still be full of untapped potential.  Saul suggests this narrative is completely mythical, and uses lots of examples of the repeated stupidity of some of the first to arrive.  My favorite is the Royal Navy explorers in the Arctic who refused to eat raw meat over the long winters caught in ice, a refusal that was based on the English civilized idea that only a savage would eat raw meat.  It was not until one of their officers spent a winter with the Inuit, and arrived back at the ship in the spring sleek and healthy, to find the usual list of those who had died or been sickened by scurvy, that these civilized practices were re-assessed.  Saul points out that insanity is sometimes defined as repeating the same behaviour and expecting a different outcome…which he repeatedly demonstrates was a characteristic of those first explorers and adventurers.

Most of the people that signed on to these service contracts were uneducated labourers who were attracted to service in Rupert’s Land by the relatively high pay, and also to escape sometimes less ideal conditions in Scotland, Ireland and England.  Remember we’re talking about the time after 1700, a period not far on the heels of the English suppression of the clans after the Battle of Cullendon in 1746.  There were lots of other reasons to leave to find your fortune elsewhere.

The dominant cultural narrative outlines how the Indigenous woman were “marrying up” with the European men.  The real narrative was that these low-level workers in the Hudson’s Bay Company were the ones marrying up.  Marrying an Indigenous woman would increase their standing in the community by marrying into established First Nations clans.  This not only helped ensure that the earliest traders would survive the winter, know what plants to eat so as to not starve or become diseased, but would open up economic and trade opportunities.  The children of those unions grew up as the offspring of two worlds, learned to speak English, Gaelic, French and at least one native language, and learned to live off the land summer and winter.  Those children became the natural interface between the Company and the First Nations.  They also developed a hybrid culture – that combined aspects of their parent cultures.  A classic example is the Red River Jig, danced to fiddle music, and a complete hybrid of First Nations, French, English, Scottish and Orknian dances and music.  Something entirely new arose out of the meeting of cultures.  That’s the story of the birth of the Metis as a distinct people, and includes a language Michif, composed of English, French and Cree.  What is most interesting in these examples is the dramatic reversal of the previously dominant narrative – something that marks most of our history with indigenous peoples.

One thing that is important to grasp in this idea of Metis, is that the idea of mixed heritage is not a defining point.  Metis is about (as Chris Andersen, no relation, a U of A professor puts it) belonging and claiming allegiance “to a set of Metis memories, territories and leaders who challenged and continue to challenge the colonial authorities unitary claims to land and society.” (“I’m Metis, What’s your Excuse?”)  Metis is about claiming membership in a particular narrative that arose out of first contact, developed a unique identity, and continues to forward that unique narrative today.

My part of that story began in 1796, when James Anderson, an Orkneyman, left the Orkney Islands to come to Churchill to work for The Company as a tailor.  While there he met a young Saulteaux woman we know only as Mary, and the two of them were married in the manner of the country.  This marriage custom was similar to an old Scots custom, and was typically done in the aboriginal fashion with the man and woman dancing around the fire together.  This was a marriage a la facon du pays, in country fashion, in 1802.  It was not until 1821 that they had a church marriage, preceded a month earlier by Mary’s baptism along with seven of their children.

The Cree people named the Metis otipemisiwak, which can be translated as ‘the people who own themselves’ or ‘the people who are their own boss’ (and perhaps also as ‘spoiled brat’).  This fierce independence marked the Metis from the earliest days, and there is much history and sometimes physical violence that marked their relationship with the fur trading companies.  The Metis were perhaps the first free enterprise merchants in the new settlements.

Intermarriage was reluctantly accepted by The Company…because they had little choice.  It did lead to some quite nasty problems.  For example, a number of those Company men also had wives and children back home in Europe.  At the end of their five-year contract some of them chose to return to Europe, and abandoned their country born families.  We really have no idea how often this happened, because invariably the abandoned spouse and children would either remarry in the settlement, or return to their First Nations family where they were absorbed in the treaty process.  There was also a change coming through the Red River settlement starting in the early 1800s as more European settlers arrived along with European wives.

The example set by leaders such as Governor Simpson is instructive – Simpson was the governor of the Hudson’s Bay company and at that time in 1820 was likely the most powerful person in the pre-confederation west of Canada.  When Simpson came to Rupert’s Land, he took a country wife, Betsy, the daughter of a Chief Factor.  He abandoned Betsy to acquire a second wife, Margaret and abandoned her when she was pregnant with their second child.  He had two other children with two women after that point.  Finally, he returned from England in 1830 married to his cousin Francis, and started construction of what is known as Lower Fort Garry, north of Winnipeg.  All told Simpson sired eleven children by seven different women, only one of which was his wife.  This cavalier and destructive approach to the country marriage was very damaging to the established social order in the predominantly Metis settlement.  There was a clear social ladder being established that placed the European at the top, and displaced the existing Metis social order.  (Source: Many Trails to Manitou-Wapah)

This is another narrative reversal.  In grade school I learned that Louis Riel was a traitor and the Red River settlement was saved only by the heroic intervention of soldiers from the east; I also learned about Simpson as the man who boldly ruled Rupert’s Land from the big house at Lower Fort Garry…all of these positive narratives are reversed when the history behind these events is uncovered.  My re-discovery of family heritage is another reversal of narrative…how the white Manitoba boy discovers his proud (but suppressed) Metis heritage.

I started my tale with talk of wisdom teeth, but the reality is the journey began long before that point, in the way I was enculturated as a boy growing up in a small western Canada town – a town ironically named after Lord Selkirk, a man who historically had much to do with the displacement of large portions of my family.  That upbringing was very typical, and by that I mean I was well-steeped in the pretty commonly accepted racism that still pops up in Western Canada from time to time.

I didn’t really know any Indians (using that word deliberately to reflect what I learned from growing up).  What I did know had all to do with poverty and alcohol abuse, exceptionally racist jokes (so bad I can’t even repeat one today), all as a part of the normal fabric of growing up.    This hasn’t changed that much.  A study done in November 2006 asked students at a university to identify the most common First Nation stereotypes.  The list is a whose-who that dominant narrative with all the usual suspects: drunken Indian; lazy Indian; Indian giver.   Canadian singer Wab Kinew makes the point that the difference between First Nations and whites is not the use of alcohol, it’s poverty: when a white person gets smashed they do it at a curling club or a Nickelback concert, as opposed to on the street corner. [500 years history in 2 minutes is also good]

I can remember asking my mom one day as we drove past the Manitoba Hotel, who those people were that were sitting on the ground outside the door to the bar.  She replied, ‘they’re dirty Indians – stay away from them’.  This is an interesting enculturation because what it created in my mind was a clear understanding that the aboriginal was “the other”, someone to be feared and to be avoided at all costs.  You might recall this thought pattern from our Bible – the Hebrew mind was conditioned to think of the world in terms of ritual purity: things were clean (and therefore safe) or things were unclean, ritually impure (and very dangerous).  The lepers who approach Jesus invariably do not ask Him for healing, but rather that they be made clean…that is, restored to right relationship with their families who had excluded them because of their disease.  So my upbringing, a rather typical western childhood, grew in me this idea of the aboriginal as the other, and contact with them was something to be feared.  What it also built inside me at a deep level was an abiding sense of shame about who I was – if being Metis was something I should be proud of, that carried with it identity and obligation as a founding race of Canada, why was it hidden away for so long?  So you can appreciate my surprise and dismay when I found out that I was myself “the other”.

I left home, joined the military, graduated from university and ended up on a fighter squadron in Cold Lake, all with a pretty clear image of who I was.  Of European descent, a mix of Scots, English, and German with a healthy side order of Icelandic.  In my home town that pretty well described everyone I went to school with…in short, white and European.  I can recall lots of discussions about this heritage.  We went to Gimli for the Icelandic Festival, we volunteered at the annual town cèilidh or clan gathering, I took lessons on the bagpipes and learned to highland dance.  In short there was lots of reinforcement of these white aspects of who I was.  I can recall dressing up as an Indian for school projects, and having my parents help me with that work, with nary a mention of our family history.

After learning about my wisdom teeth, my first reaction was not one of courage, but of fear growing out of shame.  My first thought concerned what my coworkers and peers would think about me if they found out that I shared heritage with one of those “other” people.  The few aboriginal people I worked with in those years, almost without exception, didn’t talk about their family history.  In those days, not that long ago, the military wasn’t that safe when it came to race – and I can remember my friends and coworkers at the time telling the same sorts of racist jokes that I had grown up with.  This led to a quiet period where I just didn’t talk about what I had learned, and didn’t think about it much either.

After a few years, I started to gather information, and gradually started to piece that family history together.  I was still mostly silent about that history, but was starting to wrestle with the fundamental questions about what this meant to me.  The problem I was faced with was tied in those childhood roots – if I was really to accept the fact that I was Metis, it would mean accepting that I was that “other” that I had feared, avoided and ridiculed.  That is not a pleasant place to be, a place of deep shame that I’m now mostly free from.  What really brought me around to go public with this aspect of my life was having a daughter who was growing up and wondering about where she had come from, and needing to make sure that I did her teaching on that justice.

It was only a few years ago that we presented our materials to the Metis Nation of Alberta to be registered, and only a few years ago that I started publically acknowledging my family’s heritage.  My most nerve-racking moment was stepping out to an awards ceremony wearing a Metis sash…wondering who would accept me, and who would ridicule me, and what would happen if the police stopped me on the way?  Most of my experiences have been positive, but there have been some negative ones that suggest that western racism is not yet completely wiped out.

After I received my Metis registration card I mentioned this to a white acquaintance who said to me, “I’m glad this makes you happy, but you know that you’re not really aboriginal.”  That such phrases fall from the lips of educated people that I deeply respect tells me that we’ve still got a ways to go.  With these experiences, I was happy to read that Thomas King had been once asked by a white photographer, “I know you’re an Indian, but you’re not really Indian are you?”  This because King dressed the same as him, spoke the same as him and had a full-time job just like him.  “I’m not the Indian you had in mind.”

About the same time I was having lunch with my cousin, a lawyer from that other city in Alberta…I think they have a hockey team.  We’d never spoken before so we were getting to know each other.  He mentioned that he was Metis, and when I said, “So am I!” he said, “What?”  Most interesting that he went on to say that he often used that line as a way of testing people out to see how they would react.  He was continually disappointed that people who knew him, would turn away and get cool when they found out that he was one of “those others.”  He mentioned that because the genetic lottery had made him look more European than native, he felt he had a special obligation to step into roles where he could improve the lot of his people who had suffered because of systemic racism and discrimination.

This reminded me of a song by Andrea Menard, “The Halfbreed Blues” where she sings,

I was born the privileged skin,

And my eyes are bright, bright, brown

You’d never know there is Metis blood Raging underground

Let me tell you a story about a revelation

It’s not the colour of a nation that holds a nation’s pride

It’s imagination.

It’s imagination inside.

One of the most common things said to me about my heritage – but you don’t look aboriginal.  To which I usually answer, ‘It’s just my teeth’.  At an awards ceremony last year, I watched Mckenzie stand on the stage with 30 or so other Metis scholarship recipients, and I regretted not having a picture of them all together, because of the diversity in appearance.  There was a student electrician who had the stereotypical dark complexion and black hair, all the way to a number of fair-skinned and red-haired.  It’s one of the truths about this Metis community that some of us can hide quite well, hide behind the privileged skin that Menard sings about.  Sometimes that hiding was a matter of survival, but I’m getting ahead of myself.  Two of the pictures I handed around are cartoons, one by Alberta Metis artist David Garneau, concerning the loss of identity, and an editorial cartoon about our usual stereotypes concerning those dead Indians that King speaks of.

This talk with my cousin was fascinating discussion for lots of reasons, but the largest was that a parallel branch of my family, which lived in my home town, did not know that there was another Metis line nearby.  When I linked this up with there being absolutely no mention of that heritage until I was in my twenties, I started to wonder about what was going on.  I started to piece together our family tree, and saw some of the people I was descended from: Joseph Anderson, who fought and died at Duck Lake during the Northwest Rebellion, James Isbister, the man considered the founder of Prince Albert, and one of the four who went to Montana to ask Louis Riel to return to Canada; John Norquay, the fifth premier of Manitoba, and tons of other names that are scattered throughout the history of Western Canada.  In fact the Red River Andersons are considered one of the central families of the Scots-breed community in Red River.

As I started to piece together the family story, it became clear that my Métis heritage which seems to have fallen into a black hole between about 1870 and 2005.  This was a double whammy – not only was I soundly one of those ‘others’ I had grown up fearing, but I didn’t even have a family narrative passed on in which to place that newly found identity.  When a family exists by ignoring its own creation narrative, what kind of disassociation does that create for people downstream?  It is, at its root, a fundamental denial of self, the destruction of an explanation of who you are.  In my search for some family history I came across an article written by my great-grandfather, Archdeacon Jacob Anderson and Archdeacon Fairies, concerning a Métis churchman, Thomas Vincent in Leaders of the Canadian Church c. 1920.

Thomas Vincent was a Metis Anglican priest in northern Manitoba who had done simply amazing work ministering and evangelizing – with the usual stories of incredible feats like walking on snowshoes from Fort Albany on James Bay to Selkirk in February 1863, a distance of some 1,300 miles so Vincent could be ordained in Red River.  Vincent was known as “the big praying Chief” by all in his care.

It was a neat story.  That story led me onto a 1983 academic article that used the original article as source material.  “ARCHDEACON THOMAS VINCENT OF MOOSONEE AND THE HANDICAP OF “METIS” RACIAL STATUS” (Canadian Journal of Native Studies III, 1 (1983): 95-116).  The handicap of Metis racial status, certainly a tantalizing title.  Professor Long tells another part of Vincent’s narrative, the part that my great-grandfather and his colleague had left off.   When it came time to ordain a bishop in the north, Vincent was the logical choice.  Vincent was passed over in favour of an English priest from Montreal who had never served in the north.  The abstract says it all: “The case of Archdeacon Thomas Vincent of Moosonee illustrates one of the difficulties of implementing these [Church Missionary Society] policies in the James Bay region, where men of mixed race were considered unfit to succeed their European tutors.”  Professor Long made an interesting observation that the other author of that article, the co-author with my great-grandfather was himself “country born”.  No mention that my great-grandfather was also Metis.

Documented in the article is some pretty nasty racism on behalf of Vincent’s supervising bishop, Horden. Here’s a snip:

[Bishop Horden] objected to the [Church Missionary] Society’s use of the term “Country Born.” The distinction between Country Born clergy, like Vincent and his contemporary John Sanders, and seemingly purer Native clergy gave the impression that there was a caste feeling between the two. Sanders was “not a pure Indian” and Vincent was “not a pure white” but there was, even between them, a difference of “degree.” Though Horden himself referred to Vincent’s parents as “half caste”, he recommended the terms Indian and Country Born be abolished in favor of the all-inclusive Native category. Horden revealed his racism most clearly in his theories of hybrid vigor and rigor mortis. The “declension of the European intellect in the second or third generation” resulted from a Native’s choice of mate. If he married a European woman, as Mackay did, Horden predicted children of “fair intellect” – hybrid vigor. Otherwise mental rigor mortis would set in as with Vincent, whose sons were “all stupid”, or Sanders, whose sons were “equally so or worse.”

It is quite direct, and not to separate Horden from his peer group, as I suspect that such an attitude was quite common in that era (1835-1900 or so).  What is most striking about that text, these are words from the mouth of an Anglican Bishop, speaking from a culture that at least looked like it was fully Christian.  When you hear those words, the how and why of our involvement in the residential schools mess becomes a bit clearer.  We were convinced that we were bringing intellect and culture and civilization to those without any of those things, and so certain of our righteousness that we were blind to how lost we really were.  As I researched further, I found a real surprise when I discovered that my great-grandfather, Jacob Anderson, was related to Thomas Vincent.  Now, if you’re a biographer, it would seem pretty clear that a family relationship to the person you’re writing about might be relevant.  I also thought it strange that his Metis status was not discussed, since the article was all about mixed-race clergy in the north.

At this point I emailed Professor Long to ask some questions about these anomalies.  No, Long told me, he did not know Anderson was also Metis and especially not that he was a relation of Vincent’s.  No, Long said, he was not surprised that Anderson had kept that information quiet.  Born in 1874, Anderson likely did not talk about his family heritage because of the discrimination that would have resulted.  So this is complete irony: my great-grandfather writes about a Metis priest who was passed over for leadership in the church because of his mixed heritage, when my great-grandfather himself was in a similar position.  No wonder he kept it quiet.

If you think about that date, 1874, we’re in the aftermath of the first rebellion of the Metis nation in Red River.  The first rebellion has ended with the result that the new Province of Manitoba was created (July 15, 1870).  This is why Louis Riel is, today, considered the father of Manitoba and is remembered with a statue just outside the legislature.  This is another dramatic reversal, as for most of our history, Riel was marked as a traitor to the crown.  In 1870 the Red River settlement was about 12,000 people, with almost 10,000 Metis.  (The census of 1870 revealed 11,900 people in Red River, 553 Indians, 5,757 French Metis, 4,083 English Metis and 1,565 Europeans.)  This was also the start of the intended land distributions to Metis families.

This period between 1870 and 1885 was a time of great unrest.  The Canadian government’s response to the Metis agitation was to send 1,000 armed men into the Red River area – the Red River Expeditionary Force (RREF).  This move by the Canadian government is understandable, as there had been several instances where officials or surveyors had been met with armed patrols of Metis who stopped them and told them to go back to the East.  After confederation of Manitoba, there was a back-lash against the leaders and particularly the French-Metis.  This was not a good time to be Metis in Red River.  Maggie Siggins in her book on Riel notes that many historians discount the reports of violence, murder and rape done in the Red River area by the Red River Expeditionary Force, but that she had heard so many recounts of that time from people who had been in Red River, that she found it hard to believe there wasn’t some truth.  The treatment of the Metis after 1870 was one of the factors that led to the final Northwest Rebellion of 1885.  I’ve read you the bit from the Bishop about the stupidity of the children of Metis – here’s a bit from 1876 about the Metis who had fled to Montana to escape the violence in Canada from the Fort Benton Record (around 1876):

“These Canadian half breeds pay no taxes; they produce nothing but discord, violence and bloodshed wherever they are permitted to locate. They are a worthless, brutal race of the lowest species of humanity, without one redeeming trait to commend them to the sympathy or protection of any Government.”

And that’s the reason I wanted to publically stand up and announce that I’m Metis!

That’s also the reason I believe that around 1870 my family made a conscious or unconscious choice to move fully into the mode of being European.  The 1901 census lists them still as Scotch-Breeds, with red skin colour, but after that point they’re only shown as Scottish or English.  The way this could happen is pretty clear in the family photos on the flip side of the sheet I handed around at the outset – my great-great grandfather, Thomas Anderson and his daughter both have a clear aboriginal look about them.  By the time of my great-uncle, John Anderson, it’s not so clear anymore where that aboriginal look has gone.  It was easy for them to slip into the European background with the other Protestants, and understandable given the overall tone of Canada at the time after Riel’s execution – not a good time to be wearing a sash.

This transition in status mirrors what was going on everywhere with Indigenous people in Canada.  Prior to the North-West rebellion, the Métis were the 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. After Riel’s execution the force that was 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 relations disappear from Red River.  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 allowances, because they had no land.

The loss of family history was so effective that even two generations there was a lack of awareness of family history.  What it means is that I have 1,000’s of relations throughout Alberta and Saskatchewan that I’m not aware of.  One Alberta Metis writer noted that she calls everyone in the Metis communities ‘cousin’ because she is related to so many of them.  This is true for me as well, but I’m only starting to tease out those links because we’ve never stayed in touch. [when I related this story to my father some months ago, he responded, ‘You’ve answered more questions about my heritage in one hour than I’ve had answered my entire life prior.’  More confirmation about the success of that supression.]

Now, before you think this is all long ago in the past, a cautionary tale from our own church.  In 1997, I heard a retired archbishop, David Crawley, speak about “the Residential Schools issue” as he phrased it. He started his talk with a lament, that “50 years ago the Residential School’s issue would have been solved over expensive brandy in some of the finer clubs in Toronto.” I was left speechless. Perhaps exactly what the church needed was to recognize our involvement with that evil, so we could repent.  That encounter took place in a room full of white, older Anglicans who all nodded their heads at the comment. As a newly-aware aboriginal I was shocked at how blatant and patriarchal the racism was, and how much agreement he had in the audience. Of course, I didn’t speak out, a sin of omission in not challenging the attitude. It did highlight for me that in some ways the Anglican Church was still not a safe place to be aboriginal. To hear that archbishop lament that the problem could no longer be solved by a group of white guys in TO, made me realize that there was perhaps good reason that my family history had not been openly discussed in the church through the 1900s.

The change for me started when a status Cree classmate of mine at seminary told a room full of people that she accepted me as an aboriginal person.  For a person who grew up as a white guy, safe from ‘the other’, who later discovered that he was what he had feared, that acceptance was the major turning point for me.  I now belong.  I came across a line in a graduate thesis about Metis stories of discovery, and how people universally described the process as “coming out of the Metis closet”.  Well I’m fully out now, proudly wearing this iconic symbol of my people [an arrow-head sash].

This is the touch point of my story with the residential school saga.  First, I’m certain there are lots of my relatives who attended residential schools, but I have no idea who, so effectively has this loss of heritage been perpetuated.  Second, I can understand the idea of the loss of identity, through the personal crisis that I’ve been drawn through trying to answer that question, “who am I?”  This deep sense of shame at who I am, and the loss of the real identity replaced with a hybrid lie that we were somehow pure European stock, at least officially, is a pattern that mirrors the larger narrative of a systemic attempt to destroy the Indigenous – in effect, in King’s words, to end the problem of the live Indian, by replacing them all with dead Indians.  While my loss was not due to a residential school, it was due to the same climate that permitted the concepts of assimilation, termination and enfranchisement to exist as government policy. My path of re-building that family identity involved the healing of that sense of shame, and the authentic claiming of who were are.  That claiming also involved accepting the responsibility to stand up and be counted as a member of that distinct group, and accepting the risk that goes along with telling people about yourself.

One final caution before I wrap up.  I’ve spoken of these dramatic reversals in the narrative.  Think about what this means to us today as we decide the path forward for our nation.  If those elected officials and church leaders 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 years future generations will sit around and shake their heads saying, “How could they have thought that was right?”  The caution is against too quickly presuming that we are righteous when we undertake to solve other’s challenges without engaging them first.  Perhaps the real need for caution comes when we feel so righteous about something that we are unwilling to accept for even a moment that we might be wrong – that’s a sure sign that something might be sitting right in the middle of your blind spot.

I’ve imposed on your attention for too long.  First, my thanks for your attention to this small part of the greater narrative that enfolds us all as Canadians and Indigenous.  It’s my prayer that it will bring some of our mutual history to life for you in a very personal way, as we seek to learn how it is that we will live together and share the land with everyone that calls this country their home.


Written by sameo416

March 16, 2014 at 2:11 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Urbane Adventurer: Amiskwacî

thoughts of an urban Métis scholar (and sometimes a Mouthy Michif, PhD)

Joshua 1:9

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Engineering Ethics Blog

Reflection on life as a person of faith.


Today, the Future and the Past all kinda rolled up in one.


For Those Courageous in Standing for Truth


Law, language, life: A Plains Cree speaking Métis woman in Montreal

Malcolm Guite

Blog for poet and singer-songwriter Malcolm Guite

"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

%d bloggers like this: