Louis Riel Day, a reflection
bonitas non est pessimis esse meliorem (It is not goodness to be better than the worst.) Attributed to Seneca (no, not the character from the Hunger Games).
Monday this week was the Alberta family day. In my home province of Manitoba, the holiday is called Louis Riel Day, a nod to the founder of Manitoba. Riel is a fascinating person, and his journey from prophet and leader of the resistance to traitor, execution, and his somewhat remaking into a Father of Confederation is an interesting commentary on history. I still remember projects in grade school (long before I had any hint that I was Métis) talking about Riel’s status as a traitor, and how the Crown had ridden in to save the west from the half-breed menace.
My perspective is shifted rather dramatically. There’s nothing like discovering that you’re part of “the other” (whatever or whomever that separate class may be), to quickly re-boot your perspective on your comfortable dispensations. Over the last few years as I’ve re-examined at the history of the Métis in the west, it has been with the understanding that I am them, and they are me. That approach makes the question personal.
Mary Agnes Welch wrote a smashing piece for the Winnipeg Free Press on Riel day, that provides a good summary of the present state of affairs, and does so through the stories of individuals. While, like most articles of this type, it focuses a bit more on the French aspect of the Métis question, it’s one of the better balanced articles I’ve read. It does acknowledge (in the Q&A section) that you can be anglo-Métis (or Scots Métis in my case).
That article stands with this excellent blog entry as a good introduction to the question of who is in, and who is out…and the ultimate answer for now: we’re still not sure. In the blog, if you’re interested, the comments are worth reading. Some of the debate is played out in the comments, including some interesting reflections by Chris Andersen, a professor at the UofA who has just published a very interesting text on the question of Métis identity: Metis: Race, Recognition, and the Struggle for Indigenous Peoplehood.
My favorite Metis blogger has posted a further reflection on the topic, not supportive of Saul’s thesis that “we’re all Metis“. There is a real danger in the hipness of Indigenous ancestry attracting many who want to claim some genetic linkage, while also seeking to impose a settler-centric view of history. The blog post points out that you can’t absolve your family line of nasty history by seeking to redeem yourself with ancestry. Indeed, one of my big challenges is reconciling my family’s conversion (in about 1870) to Europeans. Even if we weren’t part of the active oppression of that era, by leaving behind that community we at least tacitly supported the next hundred years of racism. I found my acceptance as a member of that Metis community (in the form of the Metis Nation of Alberta) something that brought me some peace through a home-coming. I can’t change the past, but I can change the way the past impacts my future behaviour…which means being an active voice for that community today.
Andersen takes a more firm approach to the question, and is direct in stating that defining the Métis as ‘mixed’ (as JR Saul has done) is troubling as it raises a bunch of other questions. For example, all of the non-status First Nations who have been excluded from status because of the misuse or misapplication of the law…and Andersen makes the point that Métis is not meant to be a collection of all the various disenfranchised groups that have been damaged by the law. Rather it refers to a distinct group with distinct language, culture and traditions.
All this comes to mind anew today, as we sent out ‘happy Riel day’ notes, and received a comment back to the effect that the Métis should be happy with all the benefits they’re already getting from the government. Huh. In this day it is astounding that there are still people that believe that being Métis is somehow a jump onto the gravy train of public benefits. I’ll clear that up by being clear – the only benefit I gained with my registration in Alberta was the recognition of a historic community and a laminated wallet card. To quote one of my relatives, if by benefit you mean having your lands stolen by the government and enforced by the military and becoming a dispossessed people, then yes, there are benefits.
That may change as the law unfolds, but I’m not holding my breath. Canada’s history involves too much short-sheeting of aboriginal beds for there to be some golden future coming soon. It’s enough that my daughter now knows a bit more about who she is.