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A Question of Nationhood - The Origins of the Métis Peoples

A Question of Nationhood - The Origins of the Métis Peoples

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Published by: Jack on Aug 08, 2009
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A Question of Nationhood: The Origins of the Métis PeoplesThe Métis as a nation and people developed or emerged through particular and peculiar circumstances. Indeed, it is a complicated task to pin down the origins of theMétis people.The problem of describing the origins of the Métis Nation can begin with the question of who the Métis are and who they are not. Part of the problem is that the Métis as a peopleemerged from several different factors. Let’s begin by taking a look at these factors.One of the first factors to consider when setting out to describe the origins of theMétis people is the question of their direct lineage. In truth even at this level there areseveral sub-factors that should be explored somewhat before we continue. The classicalimage of the Métis as described by J. E. Foster (1978) of, “…the French-speaking,Roman Catholic, non-Indian native, buffalo hunters of the Red River Settlement… whoconstituted Louis Riel’s following” is indeed of some merit. However as Foster goes onto ask, “what of the English-speaking, Protestant, non-Indian native, buffalo hunters of Portage La Prairie, Prince Albert and Fort Victoria east of Fort Edmonton? He thencontinues to list several other people groups in the general region at the time, “the Frenchand Saulteaux speaking, Roman Catholic, voyageur-farmers in Red River and their neighbours, the English-speaking, Protestant, farmer-tripmen and occasional merchants,among others.”Clearly, the classical image as an overarching description of the Métis, while valid insome aspects, is nonetheless grossly inadequate overall.So then what can be said to describe the Métis? There are in fact several elementsshared by all Métis people, regardless of any other differences observed.This essay will look at several factors that establish what the Métis Nation is, itsorigins, and some characteristics that define it.To begin with, one common link all Métis people share is their origins as a peopleof mixed heritage. The very name Métis, which means mixed in French, is used todescribe “offspring of Indian and white parentage (Peterson and Brown 2007: 5).” Whileit is true that there was a time when this term was used specifically in its classicalfunction as portrayed above, the term has come to be more widely embracing. Today, as
evidenced by the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in 2003 of the case of R. v.Powley, it is generally accepted that a Métis is anyone who identifies as Métis, isaccepted as such by the community, and has an ancestral connection (Frideres andGadacz 2005: 44). All Métis people share the heritage that they are the progeny of European and Indian relationships. The path that this fact took which eventually led tothe birth of a Métis Nation is what we will look at now.After a careful examination of the existing literature on the subject, it becomesclear that there are at least six factors that led to the creation of a Métis Nation.From the departure point of their mixed parentage in laying the groundwork for the Métis peoples’ common heritage, the next factor this essay will discuss is the isolationthat their geographic location offered them. Much of what will be discussed in this paper was not unique to those of what was then called the New Northwest – present-dayManitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta (Dickason 2007: 30.) Much of what the Métis inthe New Northwest experienced was also experienced by the mixed-bloods (Métis) of theGreat Lakes/St. Lawrence region, known at that time as the Old Northwest. The maindifference that led to a sense of nationhood in the latter was the geographic isolation theyexperienced. This isolation allowed them time their counterparts to the East did notexperience; time to continue in their ways and further forming and concreting those littleidiosyncrasies that eventually came to be understood as a separateness worth standing upand fighting for. So it was that when the land surveyors finally did start to appear in the New Northwest, along with the telegraph and railroad companies, the Métis people pulledtogether and stood as a distinct Nation.Hand in hand with this isolation factor is the concept of the buffalo hunt. The Métisof the New Northwest lived on the land in such a way that it belonged to everyone and tono one at the same time. The way of life for the Métis was one of nomadic freedom. AsIrene Spry describes in her essay,
The Tragedy of the Loss of the Commons in WesternCanada
, “western Canada went from common property, …with wandering bands of Indians and groups of Métis hunters, to open access resources, and finally to private property (Getty and Lussier 2000: 203).” The Métis were free to live off the land, to huntthe buffalo and other game as they pleased, and to set their own course in life. With the
selling of the land by the Hudson Bay Company and the resulting incursion of Europeansettlers, the Métis rose up, “declaring themselves (rather than the Hudson’s Bay Company[HBC]) the rightful owners of the heartland of North America, that part of the greater  Northwest where the woodland prairies dissolve into plains (Peterson 2007:37.)The buffalo hunt was also significant to the formation of a Métis Nation in thesense that it gave the Métis people something they were uniquely gifted at and neededfor. The voyageur canoe-brigades were the consumers of great quantities of pemmican – a food staple made with buffalo meat, and so it was that the Métis men in the New Northwest formed large hunting parties and with military organization operated huntingtrips on the plains, while the women stayed back processing the meat into pemmican(Berger 1981: 28.) It was also from these gender organizations of labour that expressionsof a fledgling Métis culture developed.Related to the buffalo hunts is the fur trade which fostered in the Métis a migrantlifestyle. As emphasized by Louis Hartz, “migrants are neither a social nor a culturalmirror of their parent community. The circumstances of migration act as a highlyselective device which causes the new community to diverge from its origins… Thecommunities derived from the various migration processes reflected aspects of the parentcultures but were not a microcosm of them (Foster 2007: 79.)This served as another ingredient for the Métis coming to consider themselves to be aunique nation with similarities shared between both parent nations, but enoughdistinctions to make them their own.Another factor that contributed to the Métis Nation is the role women played intheir social matrix. Métis women brought much to their culture. Transmitted from their mothers, they learned and contributed to the life of their peoples by, “preparing furs,netting snowshoes, foraging, securing small game, etc (Brown 1983: 41).”As an example of the level of respect the Métis held women in, we read a statement byLouis Riel to the court during his 1885 trial, on his homeland as mother: “The North-West is also my mother, its is my mother country… and I am sure that my mother countrywill not kill me … because a mother is always a mother, and even if I have my faults if she can see I am true she will be full of love for me (Brown 1983: 44).”

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