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What Defines the Métis Nation?

In the last 20 years, the Métis nation has seen a historic increase in citizenship. 

From British Columbia to Nova Scotia, more and more people claim to be Métis on the Canadian census. Many self-proclaimed Métis people are not, in fact, from the Métis nation, nor do they have a historic ancestral connection. Before we can learn who the liars are, we must learn; who are the Métis?

The Métis are not simply the product of race mixing. They are a unique culture of combined ancestry who lived on their own by their own laws and ways of life. The Red River Métis (originating around the turn of the 19th century) were welcoming to First Nations, European or mixed-race people.

The Métis established nationhood as a result of the Battle of Frog Plain in 1816. Fed up after countless camp raids and the racist policies set by the English Hudson Bay Company, the Métis, led by Cuthbert Grant, fought for their freedom. Going into the fight, the Métis brandished the flag, which stands as the Métis national flag today. After winning the battle at Fort Douglas, the English had no choice but to recognize the Métis as a sovereign nation who were to be traded with and respected as any other nation would be.

In the following 70 years, the Métis, who had established kinship ties as west as British Columbia and as south as Montana and the Dakotas from travelling on the hunt, had been pushed westward in the 1870s before being broken apart with no homeland after the North-West Resistance failed. This left Métis communities scattered across Western Canada.

Fast forward to today, and you’ll find Métis Nations in every province. As great as this may sound, not all who claim to be Métis are legitimately Métis. Furthermore, many people seem to have no clue what being Métis means.

Examples of this can be found in Eastern Canada. Between 2006 and 2016, the number of people identifying as Métis in Nova Scotia increased by 125 per cent, while in Quebec, it increased by 150 per cent in the same time frame.

“I think the flaw in the thinking that’s going on here is that people are mistaking an indigenous nation with a race,” says Jean Teillet, founding member of the Métis Nation of Ontario and author of The North-West is our Mother, a history of the Métis.

What most misunderstand about who the Métis people are is it is not a matter of race. Nationhood, Métis nation or otherwise, is not determined by race. It is determined by a political entity existing on a piece of land. Indigenous nations are the same as nations we see throughout the world, with defined territories and governing systems.

“The minute you reduce [indigenous nations] to a race, and it is a reduction, that would mean they have no rights entitled to them. All you’re saying is you belong to a certain heritage.”

What many in Eastern provinces think is a discovery of their Métis heritage is really a misinterpretation of their mixed-race ancestry. To be Métis is to have a familial connection to the Métis homeland, the Red River basin. This, however, is lost on most. Webster’s dictionary misses this crucial aspect, defining Métis as “a person of mixed First Nations and European ancestry.” With this distorted definition in mind, some have found an indigenous ancestor from hundreds of years ago and claimed to be Métis.

“It’s a fallacy. It’s a fantasy. It shouldn’t be given the time of day. And yet the problem is there are hundreds of thousands of people across Canada who do it. And the hardest part is that so many people are so ignorant about indigenous peoples that they actually buy this nonsense when they shouldn’t give it this time of day,” Teillet said.

Arguments have been made that mixed-race communities existed in the east, similar to the Métis, and therefore they should be considered Métis. Many in the Maritimes hold to this claim as proof they are Métis. However, the Métis nation was and is a distinct nation, not a catch-all word for mixed-race communities. The Métis chose to fly the same flag and call themselves the Métis. These eastern communities do not have a history of sovereignty.

A common theme found in the last few years is referred to as race shifting, wherein someone of European descent finds a single Indigenous person in their family history and attempts to claim they are Métis based solely on this. Others will claim indigenous ancestry with zero evidence whatsoever. There is a website dedicated to identifying race shifting and even highlights organizations condoning this behaviour.

Throughout history in Canada, life for indigenous people has been atrocious and outright murderous. As the Canadian government works to right the wrongs of the past, it seems as though there are many looking to claim indigeneity to receive benefits from the government meant for those living in the shadow of these wrongs.

“They get things out of it,” Teillet explained. “They get jobs. They get money. They get status. They get to stand out of the crowd or get publishing contracts. They get all kinds of things for a lie about who they are. It’s pretty clear it’s greed, it’s opportunistic, and it’s theft of opportunity from real indigenous people.”

Another case has come to light of a public figure feeling they are entitled to identify as Métis despite questionable or absent proof. Manitoba Environment Minister Kevin Klein has come under fire for claiming unsubstantiated Métis heritage. He has since backtracked, even removing references to being Métis from online biographies. He has since stated he is exploring his family’s history and will not make his findings public.

“Our message to Kevin Klein is this,” said Manitoba Métis Federation president David Chartrand in a written statement, “Please take your personal journey in private. If not, we will hold you accountable for the theft of our nation.”

The key to understanding the difference between someone who is of Métis descent and someone who has both European and First Nations ancestry is simple; is there a literal familial connection to the historic Red River Métis Nation? It is not the math of First Nation plus European blood. It is a connection to a sovereign people.

As to what we can do about this, Teillet says the answer is simple but not easy.

“Number one, Canadians need to get educated about indigenous people.”

The general population does not know much about indigenous people or nations. This ignorance creates a vulnerability which deceptive people can take full advantage of, as it is impossible to tell if someone is lying if we do not know the truth, to begin with.

“Second: We have to stop taking people at their word on this because it’s been shown over and over again that they’re prepared to lie and they’re prepared to cheat, and they’re prepared to defraud people in order to get these gains. We have to quit being gullible and let them get away with it. We have to implement processes and policies that demand verification.”

– Matthew Harrison, U Multicultural

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