Community Profiles: Expressions of Métis Identity
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In July 2012, Senators participated in a variety of activities at the Back to Batoche Days festival in Batoche, Saskatchewan. In September and October 2012, the committee travelled to several Métis communities across Western Canada and the Northwest Territories. The committee held several fact-finding meetings with a variety of stakeholders, including community leaders, educators, harvesters, social service providers, and elders. The meetings generated interesting and wide-ranging discussions on Métis identity in these communities.
The below community profiles and selected images offer a glimpse of what the committee experienced during the course of their study on Metis identity. Senators want to thank all those who shared cultural traditions, thoughts and personal experiences with the committee.
The Saint Laurent area, located along the southern shore of Lake Manitoba, was first inhabited by Métis families who migrated north from the Pembina territory in the United States in the early 1820s. Other early Métis in the area included those who migrated from the Red River Settlement, in and around present-day Winnipeg. The Métis who established semi-permanent settlements in the area were primarily fishers, traders with the fur company posts, and socio-economic intermediaries with the local Cree and Assiniboine populations.1
The traditional economy in Saint Laurent continues to be based around the lake fishery; other traditional sources of livelihood include hunting, trapping, gardening and farming. Recent legal and policy developments have supported Métis Aboriginal harvest rights in the area. In 2009, the Provincial Court of Manitoba, applying the Powley criteria, found that a historic Métis community and associated hunting rights existed across a large portion of southwestern Manitoba.2 Provincial government and conservation officials have since worked with the Manitoba Metis Federation (MMF) to develop rules for recognizing Métis harvesting rights across southern Manitoba, culminating in the September 2012 harvesting agreement between the Province of Manitoba and the MMF.3
Top: Senators meet with Manitoba Metis Federation Interlake members
Bottom: Senators visit Aurèle Lemoine school
The Michif language spoken in the area, generally a mixture of French and Cree, was historically a vital element in the development of Métis group identity in Saint Laurent.4 The language, along with music, dress, harvesting activities and other aspects of material culture remain important to Métis identity and ways of life in the area. Indeed, Saint Laurent is featured in a permanent exhibition of contemporary Aboriginal life and identities at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.5
The Michif language is an important aspect of Métis identity in Saint Laurent, despite a range of historic and contemporary challenges to its continued use and preservation. The old mission schools in the area, for example, actively discouraged previous generations from speaking the Michif language. Today, the influence of English is increasing as the community continues to grow and change demographically. Another challenge relates to the nature of the language itself: Michif is primarily a spoken language with many regional variations, which complicates efforts to compile a common written vocabulary or design education curricula.
In supporting the use and preservation of Michif, local educators told the committee that families are the best teachers of the language to the younger generations. Their pedagogical approach focuses on providing programs to support parents in transmitting the language and culture to their children, integrating lessons in Aboriginal culture into the existing provincial curriculum, and teaching values relating to personal and group identity, diversity and multiculturalism. As one educator noted, Métis students must recognize who they are before they can recognize the person in front of them.
The Métis community of Cross Lake is located approximately 520 air kilometres north of Winnipeg on the shore of the Nelson River, where the river enters Cross Lake. The community was first established in 1795 as a trading post of the Hudson's Bay Company. The Métis here are largely descended from Cree populations and Scottish company fur traders who settled in the area. The men of the community have a proud tradition as “trip-men” on the York boats that travelled the difficult and dangerous inland routes between the Red River settlement and York Factory on Hudson Bay.6 Today, many community members call themselves “half-breeds,” a reclaimed term used to reflect their Scottish and Cree heritage.7
Senators meet with community leaders of Cross Lake, MB
The landscape of the area was significantly altered in the early 1970s with the construction of the Churchill-Nelson River hydroelectric dam project. The flooding caused severe effects on the local ecology and undermined the traditional hunting, trapping and fishing ways of life of many Aboriginal communities, including the Cross Lake Métis community and the adjacent Cross Lake First Nation. In 1977, the Governments of Canada and Manitoba, Manitoba Hydro (a provincial power utility), and five Northern Manitoba First Nations signed the Northern Flood Agreement (NFA).8 Although there is disagreement among the parties with respect to the agreement's implementation, the NFA was originally intended to compensate for damages suffered by the signatory First Nations as a result of the flooding. However, Métis communities and some First Nations affected by the flooding were not parties to the NFA.9
In 2010, following approximately 20 years of litigation and negotiations, the Métis community of Cross Lake reached a settlement with the Province of Manitoba and Manitoba Hydro for damage caused by the Churchill-Nelson River project. The settlement agreement provides for financial compensation, the transfer of several thousand acres of land to the community, and the establishment of a co-management committee to help manage resources within a registered trapline area.10
Cross Lake became an “incorporated community” under the Manitoba Northern Affairs Act in 2010,11 with powers and responsibilities similar to a municipality. While the community welcomed this change in its local government, representatives told the committee that the community still wishes to be recognized and dealt with as a representative Métis community by other levels of government. The community has accessed federal funds for isolated programs accessible to the Métis but does not otherwise have a relationship with the federal government.
While Cross Lake retains a strong sense of its distinct Métis culture and identity, almost all individuals in the community are registered (status) Indians under the Indian Act. Many regained status or chose to register for the first time following the reforms to the Indian Act status provisions under Bill C-31 in 1985. Community members described the choice to register as difficult but necessary for many people given the benefits, such as non-insured health benefits, available to registered Indians under the act. Others in the area have chosen not to accept Indian status because they self-identify as Métis. Community leaders indicated that the issue of Indian status, while largely a personal one, has affected their ability to hold the people together as a Métis community.
In the 1870s, many Métis migrated from the newly formed province of Manitoba and established communities in the North-West Territories along the banks of the North and South Saskatchewan rivers. Many of the families who settled in these areas had long traditions as buffalo hunters, trappers, and suppliers and freighters for the North-West fur trade.
Senators hear from Métis elders and regional representatives in Duck Lake, SK
In the spring of 1885, disputes over land surveying and other federal policies broke into armed conflict between the Métis, led by Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, and the North-West Mounted Police. The Battle at Duck Lake was the first of a series of battles between the Métis and police and militia forces, which culminated at the Battle of Batoche in May 1885.12
This history is now commemorated at many sites and events in the area, including the Batoche National Historic Site, the Duck Lake Regional Interpretive Centre, and an annual cultural festival known as Back to Batoche.13
The Métis in the Duck Lake and Batoche areas impressed upon the committee a deep sense of their history, genealogical roots and identity as a Métis people. The committee heard that many community members had invested much time and resources in learning their family histories and genealogies, and knew the network of families that comprised the Métis communities in the area.
However, community members emphasized that the membership criteria of various Métis political organizations did not fit with their view of themselves or their communities. The criteria of the Métis Nation of Saskatchewan (a provincial organizations of the Métis National Council) were described as too narrow, excluding many community members whose Aboriginal ancestry was tied to areas outside the Métis Nation Homeland.14 Organizations whose only criterion for membership was self-definition were too broad, lacking important ties to the community’s shared sense of history and place.
For example, the president of a local affiliate of the Métis Nation of Saskatchewan told the committee that she is not officially eligible for membership in the provincial organization because her Aboriginal ancestry is tied to Quebec.
The committee heard that further dialogue with communities was needed around more inclusive definitions of Métis and appropriate membership criteria. Such a dialogue was needed to establish, as one community member put it, a strong foundation on which to build present-day and future Métis communities.
Back to Batoche Days Festival
Cultural events and festivals, including the Métis Nation of Saskatchewan’s annual Back to Batoche Days, play an important role in preserving the Métis traditional culture and strengthening the contemporary community
The northern Saskatchewan community of Ile a la Crosse was established in 1776 as a main Hudson's Bay Company trading post, and is the second oldest permanent settlement in Saskatchewan.15 Most Métis in the community have French surnames, reflecting their descent from local Cree women and French-speaking voyageurs from Quebec.16 Ile a la Crosse is the birthplace of Louis Riel's father, Louis Riel Sr., and the gravesite of his sister, Sister Marguerite Marie Riel (Grey Nuns).17
Top: At the Ile-a-la Crosse Friendship Centre, Senators met with members of the community
Bottom: Senators meet with students at Rossignol Community High School in Ile-a-la-Crosse, SK
Beginning in 1847, the community was the site of a Catholic mission boarding school, which for a period of time was designated for Métis children. Others from the community attended the nearby Beauval Indian Residential School, which operated from 1895 to 1983.18 Former students of the boarding school at Ile a la Crosse told the committee of their experiences at the school. Like many other survivors of this sad chapter in Canadian history, these survivors recounted experiences of severe physical abuse, isolation from family and community, and being forbidden from speaking the Michif language. The committee further heard that the physical and psychological after-effects of these experiences included loss of language, culture, community connections and parenting skills.19
In 2007, a settlement was reached with the federal government on behalf of former students of Indian Residential Schools, which included processes for individual compensation and an apology delivered by the Prime Minister to the survivors of the schools.20 While the Beauval school was included on the settlement agreement's list of recognized residential schools, the mission boarding school at Ile a la Crosse was deemed ineligible for inclusion under the terms of the settlement agreement.21 Community leaders told the committee that they are continually working to gain recognition for the survivors of the Ile a la Crosse school.
In the 1970sSenators meet with students at Rossignol Community High School in Ile-a-la-Crosse, SK, the community took greater control over education by establishing its own school board to administer and develop educational programming for the local elementary and secondary schools. The board works under provincial education legislation and curricula to provide culturally appropriate programming to students in the community, including programs to teach the Michif language, Métis fiddling and traditional outdoor skills.22 Though such programs are non-compulsory or extra-curricular, they have a high participation rate among students. School officials stated that a key measure of the local school board's overall success has been the increase in high school graduation numbers, which reportedly grew from none prior to the establishment of the board, to over 300 since 1979.
The eight Métis settlements in northern Alberta, with a combined area of 1.25 million acres (506,000 hectares), comprise the only collective Métis land base in Canada. The settlements are largely the product of a unique history in the province in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which combined Métis political action with provincial efforts to improve the socio-economic circumstances of the Métis.23
Top: Senators visit Buffalo Lake Métis Settlement
Bottom: Senators meet with community leaders of Buffalo Lake Métis settlement
In 1990, provincial legislation codified a negotiated framework for the governance and management of the Métis settlements.24 The framework includes several local and regional government institutions with delegated authority over a wide range of areas, including areas previously under municipal and provincial jurisdictions.25 In general, the eight local settlement councils have largely municipal-like powers to enact bylaws on matters of local governance and to run local programs and services. The regional Métis Settlements General Council enacts binding policies in specified areas that collectively affect the settlements, holds underlying title to the settlement land base, and manages collective settlement funds. A tribunal handles disputes relating to lands and membership in the settlements.
The Buffalo Lake Métis Settlement, located approximately 200 km northeast of Edmonton, has a membership of approximately 1,200 and a land base of 87,000 acres (35,356 hectares). The lands of all the settlements are owned under a unique structure of ownership known as “provisional title.” Under this system, each member of the settlement is allocated 10 acres; landowners can sell their lands to another member or to the General Council. Future expansion of land is not contemplated in the legislation; the committee heard that Buffalo Lake had recently purchased adjacent lands to expand its land base.
The provincial legislation establishing the settlements outlines both a broad definition of Métis (“a person of aboriginal ancestry who identifies with Métis history and culture”) and particular criteria and processes for obtaining membership in the Métis settlements. The criteria contain a restriction against membership for those who have registered as an Indian under the Indian Act, or as an Inuk for the purpose of a land claims agreement, with narrow exceptions.26 This restriction was recently upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada as justified “[i]n order to preserve the unique Métis culture and identity and to assure effective self-governance through a dedicated Métis land base.”27 The committee heard that many current members of the settlements would likely be eligible to be registered as status Indians under the Indian Act, but for this restriction against Indian registration in the settlements’ membership criteria.The committee heard that the settlements are not formally affiliated with the Métis Nation and its provincial organization, the Métis Nation of Alberta. However, some settlement members are also members of the MNA. Community leaders in Buffalo Lake told the committee that its membership criteria also allow the settlement to accept members from outside the province, including those who, for reasons relating to the geographic origins of their Aboriginal ancestry, may not qualify for membership with the MNA.
The City of Kelowna and many other communities in the Okanagan region are home to many Métis from across Canada, including those who have relocated to B.C. within the last few generations. Several local organizations of the Métis Nation of British Columbia (MNBC) are based in and around Kelowna; in addition, several community-based organizations provide a variety of social services, including housing and child and family services, to Métis populations in the Okanagan region. The committee met with several of these organizations in Kelowna, including the Métis Community Services Society of British Columbia, the Métis Commission for Children and Families of British Columbia, and the Okanagan Métis and Aboriginal Housing Society.
Senators learned about the experience of Métis in British Columbia during a meeting in Kelowna.
These organizations told the committee that the term “Métis” is used in British Columbia to describe populations with mixed Aboriginal and European ancestry, as well as those with ancestral ties to the historic Métis in the Red River region. Local Métis service providers, including those mentioned above, serve all self-identifying Métis populations and work to address their common social needs.
Methods of identifying Métis in the region include “community cards” and “provincial cards.” Representatives of local chapters of the MNBC told the committee that they issue “community cards” to Métis based solely on self-identification. Particularly since the Powley decision, the MNBC has emphasized the “provincial cards” as the primary means of Métis identification. However, many Métis community members have opted not to enter the detailed and expensive process to obtain a provincial card, and continue to rely only on community cards to demonstrate their membership in the local Métis community.
The committee heard that many Métis in B.C. have over the generations lost their connections to their Aboriginal culture and heritage, due to complex factors including racism, discrimination and social dislocation. One important aspect of the work of these service providers is in assisting individuals to rediscover their Aboriginal heritage through genealogical research. Service providers told the committee that many Métis, while generally aware of their Aboriginal ancestry, have over generations lost their connections to particular Aboriginal ancestors or historic Métis communities. As the costs associated with doing the required historical research can be very high, some social services organizations access funding through the provincial government to assist in doing genealogical research. In some cases, individuals may use this research to gain membership in the Métis Nation of British Columbia.The effects of re-discovering one’s Aboriginal heritage are profound for many. For example, one service provider told the committee about the genealogical research her organization did on behalf of two siblings in the foster care system. The organization obtained some initial information from their great grandmother, and later traced the family ancestry to one of the founders of the Batoche Métis settlement in Saskatchewan. The organization reported the information to the great grandmother, who indicated that this knowledge made her feel like she “was somebody.”
Two historic treaties cover parts of the NWT – Treaty 8 (1899) and Treaty 11 (1921).28 The treaty commissions for these respective historic treaties with the Dene were also given the authority to investigate Métis claims under special “Half-breed Commissions.” While a few Métis in the NWT took treaty, most Métis were issued money or land scrip. Land scrip was only issued in areas covered by Treaty 8; Métis in Treaty 11 territory were issued only money scrip because of a lack of arable land in the area. The Treaty 11 Half-breed Commission, for example, accepted scrip applications from the Métis after Treaty 11 was signed; and the federal government issued172 scrip payments in the amount of $240 per person between 1924 and 1927.29
Senators meet with Métis youth and regional representatives in Yellowknife.
The committee heard that early written records on the Métis in the NWT are scarce. However, both written and oral histories cover the experiences of a prominent Métis ancestor, François Beaulieu II (1771-1872). His descriptions of Métis and Dene ways of life in the region are published in the writings of a Catholic missionary named Émile Petitot, and remain an important written source on the history of the Métis in the NWT.30
Among the unique rights and benefits of the Métis in the NWT are those negotiated under three comprehensive land claims agreements.31 Negotiations are ongoing with respect to two additional land claims agreements that count Métis as beneficiaries.32 Métis residents of the NWT are also eligible for certain non-insured health benefits, including dental and prescription drug benefits, through the territorial government.
While the Métis have attained recognition in some areas, the committee heard that they struggle to be recognized in others. For example, Michif (here a mixture of French and Dene) is not among the 11 Aboriginal languages recognized under territorial legislation. Federal funds to preserve the Michif language were at one time accessible through Heritage Canada, but those funds have now ceased.
The Northwest Territory Métis Nation (NWT MN) is currently in negotiations with Canada and the NWT on the first Métis-only land claim agreement in Canada. The group had been involved in negotiations on a joint Métis/Dene agreement since the early 1980s, but the agreement was never ratified. In 1996, the parties signed a Framework Agreement to begin this negotiation process, which in 2012 reached an Agreement-in-Principle (AIP).
Eligibility criteria under the future agreement are expected to revolve around a concept of “Indigenous Métis.” This term refers to those Métis who can trace their ancestry in the treaty territory back to 1921. The committee heard that those Métis who arrived in the region after 1921 would be considered “non-Indigenous Métis” with no rights under the agreement. The AIP also defines Métis as separate from other Aboriginal peoples, and thus status Indians would not be eligible to become beneficiaries under the agreement.
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1 See Nicole St-Onge, Saint Laurent, Manitoba: Evolving Métis Identities, 1860 – 1914 (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, University of Regina, 2004); and Guy Lavallée, The Métis of St. Laurent, Manitoba: Their Life and Stories, 1920 – 1988 (Winnipeg: Published by the Author, 2003).
3 See Manitoba Metis Federation, Natural Resources, and Government of Manitoba, Metis Natural Resource Harvesting. As part of this negotiated arrangement, the Métis exercise their rights to harvest in accordance with the traditional laws set out in an MMF document entitled Metis Laws of the Harvest. See Manitoba Metis Federation, Metis Laws of the Harvest (Third Edition).
4 It should be noted that Métis peoples across Canada have spoken many Aboriginal languages and dialects that include Michif (e.g. Michif-Cree, Michif-Dene) and other distinct combinations of Aboriginal and European languages (e.g. Bungi, Chinook).
6 See Archives of Manitoba, Hudson's Bay Company – Cross Lake; and Frederick J. Alcock, “Past and Present Trade Routes to the Canadian Northwest,” Geographical Review, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Aug., 1920), pp. 57-83 (JSTOR).
7 English-speaking mixed populations in the area were commonly, and pejoratively, called “half-breeds” by non-Aboriginal populations in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
9 For more on the complex history and legal claims surrounding the Northern Flood Agreement in Manitoba, see Thibault Martin and Steven M. Hoffman, eds., Power Struggles: Hydro Development and First Nations in Manitoba and Quebec (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2008); and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, Backgrounder - Manitoba Northern Flood Agreement: Implementation.
12 These armed conflicts are known collectively as the North-West Resistance, or the North-West Rebellion. For more on this history, see Walter Hildebrandt, The Battle of Batoche: British Small Warfare and the Entrenched Métis (Ottawa: Environment Canada, 1989).
13 The committee visited and met with stakeholders at all of these locations in the course of this study. See Parks Canada, Batoche National Historic Site; Duck Lake Historical Museum Society, Duck Lake Regional Interpretive Centre; and Métis Nation – Saskatchewan, Back to Batoche Days.
14 According to the Métis National Council and its provincial organizations, the ”historic Métis Nation was based within a “homeland” that includes the three Prairie Provinces (Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta) and parts of Ontario, British Columbia and the northern United States.
15 The oldest community is Cumberland House, Saskatchewan, established two years earlier in 1774.
16 However, a few English and Scottish traders from the Red River settlement in Manitoba also established families in the community in the 19th century. See Robert Jarvenpa and Hetty Jo Brumbach, “Occupational Status, Ethnicity, and Ecology: Metis Cree Adaptations in a Canadian Trading Frontier,” Human Ecology, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Sep., 1985), pp. 309-329 (JSTOR).
18 See Larry Chartrand et al., Métis History and Experience and Residential Schools in Canada (Ottawa: Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2006); and Gabriel Dumont Institute, Virtual Métis Museum, Brenda MacDougall Discusses the Community of Ile a la Crosse (22 March 2002).
19 In November 2012, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada held hearings in Ile a la Crosse as part of its mandate to bear witness to the legacy of the residential school system and to guide a process of reconciliation among all Canadians. For more information on the mandate and activities of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, see Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Home.
20 Right Honourable Stephen Harper, “Prime Minister Harper offers full apology on behalf of Canadians for the Indian Residential Schools system,” Office of the Prime Minister, Ottawa, 2008.
23 For details on the legal and political history of the Métis settlements, see Catherine Bell and Harold Robinson, “Government on the Métis Settlements: Foundations and Future Directions” in Frederica Wilson and Melanie Mallet, eds., Métis-Crown Relations: Rights, Identity, Jurisdiction, and Governance (Toronto: Irwin Law, 2008), pp. 437-474, and T.C. Pocklington, The Government and Politics of the Alberta Metis Settlements (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 1991).
24 See in particular Alberta-Métis Settlements Accord (1989) between the government of Alberta and the then Federation of Métis Settlements, and Métis Settlements Act, R.S.A. 2000, c. M-14 (Alberta Queen’s Printer).
26 See Métis Settlements Act, ibid., sections 1(j), 75, 76 and 90.
27 Alberta (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development) v. Cunningham, 2011 SCC 37,  2 SCR 670, para. 86.
28 Treaty 8 covers a vast swath of northern Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia, and a southern portion of the NWT. Treaty 11 covers the majority of the NWT and a southern portion of Yukon. For a map illustrating these boundaries, see Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, Historical Treaties of Canada.
31 These are: the Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement (which came into effect in 1992); the Sahtu Dene and Metis Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement (1994); and the Tlicho Land Claims and Self Government Agreement (2005).
32 One is with the Northwest Territories Métis Nation (formerly the South Slave Métis Tribal Council), and the other involves the Dene and Métis of the Deh Cho region. See Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, General Briefing Note on Canada’s Self-Government and Land Claims Policies and the Status of Negotiations, January 2012, pp. 56–58.