Métis History

Who are the Métis?

A Métis person is an individual who self-identifies as Métis, is distinct from other Aboriginal peoples, and is accepted by the Métis Community - the Métis Nation. Métis peoples are united by our relationship to the land and to each other. We were raised to use the land as a communal resource for the necessities of life, rather than a possession to be exploited.

Métis are often referred to as the rainbow people. We do not define ourselves through blood quantum as First Nations people and the government do. Métis are a community who celebrates two cultures and a rich heritage.

As descendants of the voyageurs, many of the coureur du bois were Métis. Métis also come from Acadian and Cajun roots. The explorative spirit of the Métis has left its mark across the entirety of North America, from the shores of the Great Lakes, to the shores of the Pacific; from the prairies of Saskatchewan to the bayous of Louisiana.

Métis, like other Indigenous peoples, have suffered racism and prejudice and, having experienced rejection from all racial groups, have struggled with carrying on their unique legacy. Sadly, it has often been easier for Métis who could do so, to pass as Quebecois, Scottish, Irish or whatever other non-Indigenous heritage they could trace. Because of this, there are whole generations of invisible Métis making their way in the world, removed from their heritage and their community.

Métis Nationhood

The concept of Métis nationhood is hardly a recent revelation. When most Canadians conjure up the historic mission of the "National Dream”, they seldom realize that the transcontinental railroad (and most other transportation systems) followed routes already blazed by Métis pioneers.

Many Métis were hired by The Hudson’s Bay Company and The Northwest Company as guides and interpreters. Métis were excellent men of the outdoors and various Europeans took advantage of their skills by utilizing them as guides. Credit was rarely given to the Métis in the exploration of Northwestern Canada, yet many of the exploration voyages would not have been possible were it not for the help of the Métis.

The Métis are the only charter group in Canada with a history of national political independence before joining Confederation. The Métis insisted historically, and to this day, on being dealt with as an Aboriginal group, separate from the First Nations and Inuit people. Under the leadership of Louis Riel, the Métis of Western Canada established a provisional government in 1869, which negotiated Manitoba’s entry into Confederation on terms originally designed to protect the political, cultural and economic rights of the Métis. The MacDonald government’s betrayal of those terms resulted in the loss of Métis lands to speculators and a brutal disregard of Métis language and civil rights.

Questions often arise as to the legality of the government set up by Louis Riel. Was it, in fact, a legal government? It was, indeed. In transferring land title from the Hudson’s Bay Company to the Government of Canada, the first Governor-Designate was eager, and declared the Red River settlement to be part of Canada prior to the actual sale of the land. The Hudson’s Bay Company gave up control, but Canada was not legally able to take possession of the territory. Therefore, under international law, Louis Riel was able to establish a government ex-necessitae and in Sir John A. MacDonald’s own words, "legal” entitlement.

Merging Cultural Practices

Originally, Métis paternal ancestry came from a variety of nationalities: French, Scottish, Irish and English, and most mothers were Native Indian. In the beginning, the Métis Nation consisted of two different characteristic groups: the French Métis (Bois Brulé) and the English "half-breeds". In every aspect of life, the Métis adjusted European technology to that of their settlements.

From their maternal Abriginal background, the Métis acquired a broad knowledge of traditional Indigenous ways and learned to adapt both the Aboriginal and European ways of life, using what was appropriate to their needs. This represents a central theme in Canadian history: the contact of European civilization with the ancient cultures of the wilderness. How could the two cultures and environments be modified? This question was central to the Métis. Rather than inherit one set of cultural practices, they sought a compromise between European and Aboriginal ways, between hunting and attempts at agriculture.

Métis women played an important role in the process of accommodating the two cultures. It was the Métis women who retained the leather skills of their Aboriginal ancestors, and added the glass beads sold by the trading companies. They developed leather work into a superb craft, even an art, and produced beaded moccasins, coats, belts and mittens for their men. The work was so beautiful that the Aboriginal women who previously had decorated their clothing mainly with intricately worked porcupine quills, soon adopted the beads.

Métis women took the leather and furs to the country and made clothes from Indigenous materials patterned on European-style tailor-made clothes, rather than the continued use of straight flowing robes or huge blankets. Métis furnishing and utensils, like their clothing, were a combination of Aboriginal and European. From the trading posts, they obtained cast-iron pots and skillets, copper kettles, tin plates, cups, cutlery and blankets. Most of their other needs they supplied themselves, from items found in nature.

The many uses of native animals was important to the Métis peoples way of life. Buffalo and game rawhide was cut and sewn to make containers, pots and storage bags. Baskets and other containers were also made from birch bark and sewn with spruce roots. Bones from rabbits and other small animals were hollowed out, cleaned and plugged at both ends to store needles. The stomachs of small animals, when cleaned and dried, made excellent airtight bags. Sinew was commonly used for sewing. Long and stringy when dried and separated, it made an excellent thread almost impossible to break. Glue was obtained by boiling down animal hooves and horns to a fine paste.

The Métis made dishes from birch bark and hollowed slabs of wood, rock and stone hammers and mauls were made by painstakingly grinding rocks for hours with another stone. With a maul, buffalo meat and wild berries could be pounded on a hollowed out stone to make pemmican. Buffalo robes were used as blankets and rugs, and when cloth scraps were available, a quilt could be produced by making a sheet from many small pieces, sewing the sheet into a bag and stuffing it with feathers or down. Like their sisters (the Plains Indian women), Métis women put colourful designs and patterns on the everyday articles they used. Sometimes this was used for spiritual reasons, but most often it was simply out of their love of decoration.

Métis Relationship To The Land

The concept of individual ownership of land was alien to the Métis, and communal use was very important to their way of life. Historically, Métis resistance to external restrictions on that use was immediate and often violent. The Métis of Sault Ste. Marie fought the Iroquois, the French, the English, Canadians and the Americans to preserve the relationship to their communities. The Métis of Red River fought the Sioux, Earl of Selkirk, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Government of Canada to assert their birthright to their land. The freedom to live our lives in the land of our birth, with or without land title, was militantly defended by the Métis.

Métis occupied lands in Canada for generations before they were deprived of them by the legalistic techniques of a non-Aboriginal frontier society. There is no question that Métis are Indigenous to North America in a way no immigrant or ethnic group can claim.

Métis people had a significant influence on the historic development of modern Canada. The fur trade was the backbone of the colonial economy and fur-trading companies depended on the cooperation of Métis for their success. Métis who had become familiar with the territory over generations were able to lead the explorers through it. The interaction between colonial and Métis populations follows a three hundred year old pattern which began in Acadia and continued to Sault Ste. Marie, Red River, Batoche, and is still unfolding today.

Legal and political techniques deprived Métis communities of fundamental human rights, and their loss of land. In 1875, the Half-breed Adhesion to Treaty #3 resulted in the establishment of Canada’s only Métis reserve at Couchiching, near Rainy River in Northwestern Ontario. This brief period of accommodation of Métis claims was largely the result of the Riel defense of Métis lands in 1869-70, and ended with his execution in 1885.

Current Métis in British Columbia

Economically marginalized by the actions of Canadian governments to follow, many Métis gravitated west of the Rocky Mountains, where their descendants continue to reside. There are 12,000 Métis registered with the Métis Nation of BC (MNBC) and approximately 70,000 individuals who self-identify as Métis residing in the province — with the largest concentrations in the Northeast, Prince George and the Southwestern Lower Mainland.

Métis and the Indian Act

The Indian Act was intended as a statutory framework for the establishment and administration of Indian reserves and bands. It was never meant to determine who is an Indian for all purposes, only who is an Indian for the purposes of the Indian Act.

Some people who are not Indians within the meaning of the Indian Act may be "Indians” within the meaning of Section 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867, and are most certainly Indians within the meaning of Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.

Scrip Certificates

In the late 1800’s, the Federal Government issued scrip certificates In Western Canada entitling the bearer to either a specified acreage of land or a sum of money, which could be applied to the purchase of land. Scrip certificates were issued to individual Métis in an attempt to satisfy their claim to land entitlement, but many Métis through both active exclusion and passive indifference, were passed over for scrip. Whole communities who had lived on the land for generations were swindled out of their rightful heritage and Métis were robbed of their land base. The Juvenile Act of Manitoba was amended to allow minor Métis children to sell or otherwise dispose of their script, opening up endless avenues for abuse.

The Métis were excluded, swindled, frightened, forced or killed off the land and left to live on unused portions of land and it is, in fact, for this reason that the Métis were called the "Road Allowance People”, for they most often were obliged to make their settlements on the government land on either side of the road. The government holds this road allowance in case of road needs to be put through. This portion of land is only 30 feet wide.