"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Archive for August 2015

A Talk on Diversity

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My Metis Heritage – a Talk for a University of Lethbridge class  17 August 2015

The slides I used may be downloaded at this link.  

I’ve tried to reference sources throughout to at least allow a chance to locate source material.  If there’s an area that isn’t referenced, just ask and I’ll provide more info.

Chuck asked if I would stop by and talk about indigenous or aboriginal issues in the context of your focus on workplace diversity.  I am by no means an expert or even particularly knowledgeable about the technical question of diversity, or the theoretical underpinning of the subject.  What I know about it is what I’ve experienced in my professional life, which reflected a variety of approaches, most stuck in mode of attempting to complying with legislation.

What I’ll do over the next little while is to run through a bit of a talk about some of my encounters with diversity in the Canadian Forces between about 1983 and 2003.  I’ll talk about some indigenous matters, particularly some of the stereotypes, terminology and history that you need to be aware of when you’re specifically considering aboriginal co-workers, and finally I’ll talk about my own story of transitions in self-identity and some specific details of my people, the Metis.  My story of self-identity will be my primary vehicle of explanation, a story that begins with me as a white boy in a small town on the Red River in Manitoba and arrives at today, with me speaking to you as an indigenous person of Metis heritage.  My tale is one of dramatic transition in self-concept, with the disassociation that goes along with any fundamental transition of self. This is a lot of ground to cover – I will post a copy of this talk on the internet with the slides for download if you want to refer to it later.

Now, what does the question of self-identity have to do with diversity?  Identity is the key aspect of who we perceive ourselves to be, and that identity determines how we bring diversity into the workplace.  Sometimes that identity is one that people can see visibly, which can create its own problems.  I’m an example of the reverse situation, as an invisible minority due only to the chances of genetic lottery, the first thing people say to me when I self-identify as an indigenous person is…”But you don’t look native.”  Those sorts of assumptions presume a certain understanding that will impact the way you perceive diversity in the workplace, and I hope to work through a few of the usual assumptions around indigenous people in Canada in this talk.  So the question of diversity is intimately tied to the individual’s concept of identity.

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.

Military Experience

The Canadian Forces, over my later career and apparently to the modern day, are still very much in a compliance mode of thought.  This involves setting goals and then attempting to achieve those goals.  I recall an early poster I saw come out in the early 1990’s that said something like, “Diversity is operational effectiveness”.  Operational effectiveness is the military’s version of profitability.  The poster was not very compelling at the time, as there had been no change in the underlying culture.  It was also interesting to think about diversity in the context of operations.  An example, the military operates very much on the basis of merit, and I saw repeatedly that non-visible minorities (like many aboriginal people) did not self-disclose as they wanted no impression left that they had not won success on their laurels.

It also made me think specifically about how I was supposed to perceive my soldiers.  I had a simply outstanding armament load crew chief, those who load weapons on the airplanes, who was a proud First Nations member.  I never thought about Bill as a First Nations person who was also skilled at his job; rather I thought about Bill as an outstanding armament load crew chief who happened to be First Nations.  What was that poster supposed to encourage me to do?  Now think about him in his particular state of being as an aboriginal person before I looked at his work?

My own story is another example of how numbers-based diversity measures are a very limited perspective, that can in fact encourage people to think of the question of diversity in only black and white terms.  Before I was about 20, and knew I was Metis, I would have self-disclosed as a white person of Scottish heritage.  In the military of that moment, I was just another WASP.  After age 20, when I knew I was aboriginal, I now became a member of an under-represented minority.  Arguably, from a simple numbers perspective, the Canadian Forces had greater diversity after I self-disclosed aboriginal status.  In reality, there had been no change of any substance.  My world view was shaken, but basically unaltered.  If we rolled forward 30 years to today, that world view has been significantly conditioned by my study of my history and indigenous issues.  Today, my world view does bring greater diversity to the work place.

Numbers-based systems also fail to provide any real measure of diversity because they are highly tied to things that are visible and outward.  They also serve to enforce a perspective that reinforces stereotypes of particular groups and, in the military at least, had a significant potential to impact the working relationships.  Once diversity, and particularly numbers diversity, becomes a metric for the organization, there starts to be a suspicion that promotion may follow those who fulfill the quotas.  I saw first-hand how this created division in the workplace, as only the suggestion that someone had received preferential treatment by reason of gender caused problems.  All this to say that numbers-based systems of assessing diversity present risk.

Sacred Cows and Myths to Bust

One of the difficulties that we bring to the indigenous table as Canadians is a history of stereotypes and myths surrounding the whole question of our aboriginal peoples.  I’ll talk about this in more detail in my story, but I wanted to address some of those myths right up front.  These are a source of potential trouble, but also of misunderstanding if you happen to be working with aboriginal co-workers.  So here is some gentle challenge of those sacred cows.  Let’s start with a short video by Canadian musician and First Nations spokesperson, Wab Kinew that addresses the five big myths.

Media images of “The Indian”.

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 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. (paraphrasing King)

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” 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.  We can watch this as a video.

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.  From the perspective of the aboriginal, there is progress, but the same song seems to be playing when it comes to the federal government’s desire to make the “Indian problem” go away.

As a note on world view, I’ll just highlight one of the lines in the poem: so consider as you live your days, that we live ours under the gaze, of generations watching us of generations still intact, of generations still to be, seven forward, seven back.  While there is wide diversity in cultures present throughout Canadian aboriginals, one idea that is present is this concept of an obligation to generations that have passed, and those before – seven generations each way.  This is a unique worldview that is the sort of perspective that a diverse workplace could bring forward.

What’s in a Name?

I’ve been using a number of terms already, some interchangeably, in an area where it is important to be deliberate in what term is being used.  I use aboriginal and indigenous interchangeably as collective nouns, but even aboriginal is not always a safe term.

Part of that minefield of aboriginal issues has to do with the language we use to describe things.  I’m going to touch on some of the high points here with a word of caution – there are terms in use legally that are considered by Canadian aboriginals to be derogatory terms.  Some terms are highly charged even within the aboriginal community, which leads me, in settings where I have to engage those terms to be careful and sensitive to who my audience might be.  As an example, the common term “Indian” is not typically used today except in legal contexts.  However, I did have a New York State Mohawk professional once comment that he didn’t understand what all the fuss was about in Canada, as he proudly self-identified as an Indian.  I’ll start with that term.

As an example of the impact of law on status, consider the impact of two pieces of federal legislation, bills C-31 and C-3.  Pre-1985, a status woman who married a non-status person lost her status.  That is, she was unable to pass status on to her children.  Status is a legal term, and it mattered not if her children were, for example, band members raised on a reserve immersed in the culture.  To Canada, they were no longer status Indians.  This was changed through two pieces of legislation so that gender discrimination was eliminated.  But, the impact of the change is still to permit an individual to lose legal status after the second generation.  This is a complicated area of law that is tightly bound to a person’s self-identity.  So, there are large numbers of legally non-status Indians who live an aboriginal lifestyle, may be band members, and may dwell on reserve but are not legally recognized.  You could have in one workplace a combination of a number of these individuals…leading to interesting water cooler conversation.

This raises the question of what descriptors are safe to use today?  The term aboriginal comes to us as a legal term from the Constitution Act of 1982.  This is a critical piece of legislation for the Metis, as it is the first time that Metis are acknowledged as an aboriginal grouping in Canada.  But, to some indigenous persons, the term aboriginal is another piece of imposed identity, imposed legally and removing some aspect of the ability to self-define who they are as a people.  The term indigenous seems to be safer ground, and is the internationally recognized term, for example, in the UN declaration of rights of indigenous peoples.

Our Hidden History

With the Truth and Reconciliation process of the last few years, there has been much information available concerning parts of Canadian history that have been neglected or suppressed.  I’m not going to cover this in great detail, except to say that there are aspects of our history that differ greatly than what you may have been taught: maybe not if you’ve taken focused courses at the university level that looked into that history, but even there sometimes the dominant voice suppresses the narrative.  Let’s look at another Wab Kinew video.

Here are a couple of quotations from figures of authority in the era of the Residential Schools, that illustrate the sort of focus taken by the government.  The last from a former prime minister who has become in retrospect an icon of conflicted Canadian history.

My Particular Story

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 somewhat scandalously, “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 and Western Canada.  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.

This is significant because the second most common questions 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).

It’s interesting to me that the Supreme court decision in Powley sets out for us a near-definition of what identity is comprised of.  Identity can be seen to involve three aspects: self-identity, who you think you are; external identity, how you appear to others; and recognition by an established community.

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’s 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.  These European young men 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 Scots/English branch of the Metis nation.

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 your home to find your fortune elsewhere.

Our dominant cultural narrative outlines how the Indigenous woman were “marrying up” with the European men.  This is very much a settler, conqueror perspective rooted in the systemic racism that is quite common in the west.  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.  There’s also a little known extinct hybrid language called Bungi, that was the Scots equivalent of Michif, comprised of English, Cree, Ojibwa,  and Gaelic.

One thing that is important to grasp in this idea of Metis, is that the idea of mixed heritage is not a defining point.  Non-status Indians, for example, by virtue of having mixed ancestry, do not automatically become part of the Metis.  Chris Andersen, a U of A professor describes Metis identity as 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?”)

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 (western Ojibwa) 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 (1820) was likely the most powerful person in the pre-confederation west of what is now 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.

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 who’s-who that dominant narrative with all the usual suspects: drunken Indian; lazy Indian; Indian giver.

I wonder today what my father thought when my mom would make racist comments.  I can remember asking her 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.  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 Europeans.  I can recall lots of discussions about this heritage.  We went to Gimli for the Icelandic Festival, we volunteered at the annual town Scottish 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.

Identity is much more than just appearance, and that’s one of the key truths about diversity in the workplace.  A diverse workplace reflects the makeup of Canadian society, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there needs to be a specific percentage of each visible ethnic group before you can call your workplace ‘diverse’.  We all bring the gift of diversity to our work lives because we’re not all the same person.  This is not to say that diversity doesn’t include representation of particular groups, but recognizes that even within those groups there is a wide diversity in the physical and psychosocial makeup of the individuals.

The indigenous community in Canada is by no means monolithic and unified in outlook.  Like any community, even within a particular discrete group, like the Blackfoot of southern Alberta, there is a wide diversity in perspective.  Between discrete groups there is even more variation.  A couple of examples.  The present state of Metis identity says that you have be able to demonstrate heritage from one of the traditional Metis areas between Ontario and Northern BC.  In practical terms that means having at least one direct ancestor who took land script during the issue of script in the 1800’s.  But, there are Metis communities from coast to coast.  The ones in Labrador, by example, never had the opportunity to take script because that was never offered in the Maritimes.  By the present definition of most western Metis nations, those people are not Metis.  If you look to First Nations you find similar conflicts: there are large numbers of non-status Indians who have been disenfranchised from that legal status by the operation of the Indian Act.  This was particularly a problem for status women who married non-status prior to 1985 as their children lost that legal status.  This has been changed a little by Bill C-31 and C-3, but there is still a limitation that results ultimately in children losing status.

A further example revolves around the Indian Act itself.  Some First Nations bands are deeply committed to the Indian Act and oppose any change.  Others wish there to be radical revision.  Other bands do not acknowledge the Indian Act as they consider themselves sovereign nations that are not under the authority of the Canadian government.  For example, the Six Nations Haudenosaunee Confederacy issues its citizens their own passports, as they refuse to accept a Canadian passport because they do not consider themselves citizens of Canada.  This is a present issue in the indigenous community as many prepare for the federal election – a common refrain among indigenous persons is that they do not vote, as they do not regard Canada as having any particular authority over them.

So, you can see, that just saying there is an aboriginal person in your workplace, does not represent any true sense of diversity, because it all comes back to what particular person or persons happen to be there.

One of the most common things said to me about my heritage – but you don’t look aboriginal.  To which I usually answer, ‘just my teeth’.  At an awards ceremony last year, I watched my daughter 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.

I started to piece together our family tree, and saw some of my relations: 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.

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), with Louis Riel as the founding father.  The Red River settlement at this time 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.”

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 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. 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 back my great-uncle wasn’t aware of his family history.  What it means is that I have 1,000’s of relations throughout Alberta and Saskatchewan that I’m not aware of.

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.

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 we are.

This history of the Metis people has led to a lot of discussion about identity, and just as I wrap up I’ll show you two pieces of artwork by U of Regina professor and Metis David Garneau.

Finally, to end on a positive note that has direct impact on the whole question of diversity, this line from Paulette Regan’s excellent book, Unsettling the Settler Within.  Part of our task in creating diverse and welcoming workplaces is to spend the necessary time reflecting on our own perceptions of the people that we are encountering.  Inclusion requires more than lip service and the use of the right buzz-words, but rather an openness to encounter “the other” in a sincere way that puts aside preconceptions and engages the person’s humanity…sometimes in spite of what our experience and knowledge want us to do.


Aboriginal Peoples: Section 35(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 defines Aboriginal peoples as “including the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada.”  This is a legal term.

Indian: Section 2(1) of the Indian Act, 1985 defines the term “Indian” as: “a person who pursuant to this Act is registered as an Indian or is entitled to be registered as an Indian.”  This is a legal term that is sometimes considered offensive when used as a descriptor.

Treaty Indian: The term Treaty Indian is defined by INAC as “A Status Indian who belongs to a First Nation that signed a treaty with the Crown.”

Non-Status Indian: INAC’s website defines the term as: “An Indian person who is not registered as an Indian under the Indian Act.”

Inuit: INAC’s website provides this definition: “An Aboriginal people in Northern Canada, who live in Nunavut, Northwest Territories, Northern Quebec and Northern Labrador. The word means “people” in the Inuit language — Inuktitut. The singular of Inuit is Inuk.”  The old term “Eskimo” is considered impolite.

Indigenous: Means “native to the area.” In this sense, Aboriginal people are indigenous to North America.

Métis: “Métis means a person who self-identifies as a Métis, is distinct from other aboriginal peoples, is of historic Métis Nation ancestry, and is accepted by the Métis Nation.”

First Nations: Defined by INAC as: “A term that came into common usage in the 1970s to replace the word ‘Indian,’ which some people found offensive. Although the term First Nation is widely used, no legal definition of it exists.

Elder: A man or woman whose wisdom about spirituality, culture and life is recognised by the community. Elders can be any age. The Aboriginal community and individuals will normally seek the advice and assistance of elders in various traditions and contemporary areas.



Other Resources:

A very excellent blog by a Metis lawyer. She engages both the legal and cultural issues:

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


An interesting summary of Metis history:


Books I referred to:

Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America

James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life

 Paulette Regan, Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada

The artist David Garneau has a good website that talks about the meaning behind his art:

Cowboys and Indians (and MÈtis?)  David Garneau, University of Regina

Written by sameo416

August 17, 2015 at 10:37 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

A short word when departing…

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If you’ve ever edited one of my decisions, you know I can’t say anything quickly. Please bear with me for a few minutes. Thanks particularly to my retired colleagues who came to lunch, and to everyone who organized, brought food and contributed to the gifts. About a month back I was starting to feel really agitated and uneasy about the move, and when I reflected on why I realized that it was because I have never spent 10 years in one job in my life. It’s given rise to some reflection on that question. My military experience was a move every 1 or 2 years, as that was the normal pattern.

Yet I’m aware that a departure from a workplace is much like a hand being pulled from a bucket of water. When we leave the hand is pulled out and the water rushes in to fill the void, and all that is left is ripples. In time even the ripples settle down. This is not to say that time in our work community does not have an immense impact on each of us, for our work and mutual interactions shape who we are and help us to grow and develop. Sometimes that comes from happy, supportive situations; sometimes it comes from moments of intense fury, frustration and tears. Like the cycle of day and night, workplaces are similarly places of light and dark, just like all other parts of our lives. It’s always good to remember that often it is the darkest moments that lead us into the greatest personal growth.

When I applied here for a position in 2006, I was in pretty rough shape and in a really dark place. I left the military with a significant disability – 36 percent clinical impairment if you’re counting – and I was literally at the end of my rope in 2006. I had just finished two very difficult years of full-time work for the church, and had concluded that I could not continue working full-time. As I was musing over that one day while looking at the Journal’s job section I turned the page to see the Appeals Commission advertisement. I never thought I would get the position because I didn’t have the degree of experience they wanted. After the second interview I recall telling the search consultant that I thought it was time to start taking the process seriously. I’m grateful for people like George and Doug, who decided to give an ex-military guy a chance…even after Doug found out I wasn’t licensed to repair his airplane. So this place was not only a job, but a graduated return-to-work program that ended with me successfully transitioning back to full-time work. It’s a supreme and divine irony that our work to adjudicate appeals has permitted my own veteran’s compensation claim to come to a resolution of sorts. Thank you to each of you for your role in my recovery.

I’ve told several people about my reasons for leaving, but it’s worth a moment. We are in a period of uncertainty about re-appointment. I’m sure this will pass with time, but it will pass too late for me. I had grown increasingly uncomfortable with the uncertainty and the impact on my family. That’s compounded by my older hearing chair contract that has no mandatory advance notice of an intention to not renew: meaning each time my contract turns, it’s a no-notice dismissal situation. That, the uncertainty, and a number of other factors all came together once, made me turn to look outside the public service. Why outside? In the past year the 20 some positions I had applied for had not netted even a phone call. It was clear that my future was not intended to be with government.

Much to my surprise the first job I googled (literally, “engineer AND director AND Edmonton AND job”) was my first application, led to an almost immediate call in for five days of interviews with a job offer on day 6. The position looked like it had been written for me specifically, asking for a combination of engineering, legislative interpretation and volunteer management. The way it all came together in a rush, a near-perfect job with a generous offer, was a clear signal that this was time to follow a different path. So, August 17 I’m the new deputy director of registration for APEGA (The Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta), basically working in the daily operation of the registration office processing some 9,000 applications per year, half from foreign-trained engineers.

What was not so easy was the decision to leave. Our work at the Appeals Commission is so important, for we have the immense authority to correct errors in the compensation system…errors that can literally destroy a person’s life (or an employer’s existence). I’ve really appreciated the direct opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives, even if that difference is only listening to their story with compassion and understanding (in short, to be really human for them). The work has been hugely challenging but oh so fulfilling.

Although I’ve blanked most of 2012 and 2013 out of my mind except for the occasional recurrent nightmare, I also wanted to thank each of the people that worked with me to roll that immense boulder back up to the mountaintop. I’m speaking of our ACES project here, of course, and I was reminded by Donna the other day of how many times we came close to being crushed as we were trying to achieve a stable and functional application. You know who you are, and my sincere thanks for propping me up many times in those dark months.

I’m sad to say farewell to the group of really neat people that make up our community. I’m grateful for the support from everyone, and when I needed something I never had to look far for help. I’m eternally indebted to my commissioner peers who have provided for so much learning and development and always lively discussion over the past almost ten years. As I was cleaning out my file cabinet I came across a 6 inch high stack of decisions that Gwen had reviewed in precise detail, from the day when new chairs went through a mandatory 6-month writing review. I’ve saved those decisions because they continue to help me improve as a writer, and I now realize how much work she put into those reviews. Thanks Gwen and Marilyn for many discussions and gentle challenge when I was heading off into the deep end without a paddle board. Thanks to all my chair colleagues …and particularly to Frank for helping keep me real. Thanks also for the help as we worked through the loss of several dear colleagues, most particularly Ed Spaans who was my unofficial mentor concerning issues of learning to live in a world out of uniform.

As I passed the news of my departure on to people, it sparked some rather dramatic responses. I’ve been glad that most of the profanity and comments about my traitorous act of leaving have tapered off. Know that I have benefited more from your support over the past decade than anything I may have contributed to you. So, thank you for this lunch, and for all the kind words of the past six weeks. Keep up the fight for truth.


Written by sameo416

August 17, 2015 at 10:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Walking After Midnight

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I just finished an incredible book, Walking After Midnight: One Woman’s Journey Through Murder, Justice and Forgiveness (Jun 26 2006), Katy Hutchison. She tells the story of her journey after her husband is beaten to death at a house party in Squamish, BC in 1997.

She embarks on a path of restorative justice, I think primarily because once the two offenders admitted what they had done, she responded to them with compassion. Her mission becomes providing lectures to school children about the dangers of peer pressure, abuse of alcohol and drugs and how small choices can change other’s lives for the better, or the worse. After he was released from prison, she included one of the two offenders in those presentations. She’s asked at one point if she and Ryan had become friends, and after pausing responds that she believed so, if friends were those who provided support and reality testing for each other (paraphrasing). While she acknowledges there will always be a divide between them, it is partly overcome by community.

She is not operating from an overtly religious framework, but is clearly more grounded in Christian teaching that lots of active church-goers. Her modelling of love for the prisoner, even if that prisoner murdered your spouse, is really humbling.

When some of my clergy colleagues (in a past diocese) would challenge me to be welcoming to gay couples (something I’ve never had an issue with), my usual response would be to ask them when they would be inviting Paul Bernardo over for dinner…which usually made short work of the conversation. Christians are typically really good at welcoming people we like being around…but the charge from Christ is to welcome the prisoner. That ultimately means welcoming the most horrific person you can imagine into your home. That is something that we manifest far more rarely.

You can maybe see this manifested most clearly in the present divide between the Anglican Church of Canada and the Anglican Network in Canada. These are, in reality, parallel jurisdictions of episcopal, liturgical, catholic churches. Yet the reality is there is little discussion or community across that split, probably because that’s exactly what happened — a split. When our unity should arise out of the one who calls us to be his own, we instead stand apart because of…well, mostly hurt feelings.

Katy Hutchinson was most surprised by the negative reaction of the media and many friends and family to her restorative response. She comments in the book that people seemed perplexed that she did not respond with the usual rhetoric of anger and vengeance. That this is the expected narrative in the case of a violent loss says much about our culture.

A moving account. Be warned, there are many points where Kleenex is mandatory.

Written by sameo416

August 6, 2015 at 10:07 pm

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