Invisible Roots

Three books provide distinctive versions of Métis history.

My friend Susan remembers walking on the log sills of the Métis longhouse, but that was decades ago, when she was a child. “I’d say it was about 40 feet long,” she says, tracing a line in the air with her finger, “and there was a pit, some kind of cellar, I guess. The last time I came here, I couldn’t find it.” She peers and then plunges into the tangle of scrubby aspen that has pushed up along the margin of the site. “No,” she says when she re-emerges a few minutes later, “I don’t know where it is any more.” But she can still find the fallen chimney, a scatter of large, spatulate stones half-hidden in the grass. They are splotched and whorled with rust-coloured lichens.

We are on the up-slope of a broad, flat-bottomed valley on the edge of the Cypress Hills, in the far southwestern corner of Saskatchewan. Below us, sunlight ripples over the fall of land as it sweeps toward the scrawl of brush that marks a water course. On the far side, beyond the creek, an opposing wall of hills rises steeply, but up where we are standing, in this place where a Métis family once cooked meals on a stone hearth and drank in the very same view, we are so high that we can see over everything, right out to the edge of this spinning world. From the summit of Anxiety Butte, ten minutes’ hike from here, you can see all the way south to Montana when the sky is clear.

This is the Canadian-American borderland that Carleton University historian Michel Hogue invokes in his new book, Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People. With the same painstaking regard for detail that an archeologist might bring to excavating a long abandoned site, Hogue has devoted himself to fingering through archival collections in seven states and four provinces to uncover the boundary-crossing history of the Plains Métis. His story opens in 1803, amid a tumult of barking dogs, squalling babies and squealing carts, as a supply brigade pulls away from a trading post at Pembina, now in North Dakota, on an errand for the North West Company, based in Montreal. The families in this caravan have been born into the fur trade, and most of them are of blended Euro-Canadian, often canadien, and indigenous descent. (The term “métis” derives from an old French word meaning “half and half.”) Succeeding decades will find these individuals or their descendants following opportunity north to the Red River Settlement, south to Lewiston, north again to the Saskatchewan country, south to the Dakota Plains, west to the Cypress Hills.

“There were no lines anywhere then,” an old buffalo hunter named Louis Lafountaine recalled wistfully many years afterward. “There were no white men here at that time. We hunted the buffalo, had enough to eat, and were satisfied.”

By the time Hogue brings his narrative to a close, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, those good old days are long gone. The white men have, of course, turned up in force, armed with theodolites for dividing the land, and racial categories and citizenship requirements for dividing the people. Although the Canadian and American authorities differed in their tactics, Hogue concludes that, in both jurisdictions, “federal policies … were based on geographic fixity and clear-cut divisions between members of different tribes, races, and nations that simply had not existed as such in the past … These new and more restrictive markers [of race and nationality] were intimately linked to settler colonialism’s logic of dispossession.” Significantly, the penultimate chapter in his book is entitled “Exile.”

South of the line in the United States, the Métis were forced through the sieve of colonial categorization and found wanting: too white to be Indian, too Indian to be citizens, too “British” to belong. In Canada, by contrast, where the people of Red River, led by Louis Riel, mounted a successful resistance against the unilateral assertion of national sovereignty in 1869–70, the Métis were recognized as holders of aboriginal title. But this right, as encoded in the Manitoba Act and subsequently extended across present-day Saskatchewan and Alberta, was only intended to be acknowledged in the moment of its extinguishment. Unlike the signatories of the numbered treaties, who ceded their aboriginal title in return for communal reserves of land, the Métis were bought out with “half-breed” scrip, certificates issued to individuals that could be exchanged for land or cash.

In theory, eligibility for scrip depended solely on ancestry, together with residency at a given place and date, but in practice, the petty czars who ran the system made up the rules to suit themselves and frequently chose to disqualify applicants who were too “foreign” for their tastes, whether through marriage (a woman who married an American) or through temporary or permanent settlement in the United States. As Hogue demonstrates in excruciating detail, the issuance of scrip was also notoriously susceptible to fraud, extortion and ruinous delay—so much so that, in 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada, responding to a case brought by the Manitoba Metis Federation, ruled that the federal government had “acted with persistent inattention and failed to act diligently” in fulfilling its legal obligations, leaving a “rift in the national fabric” that “remains unremedied.”

If Hogue’s account of the Plains Métis experience is melancholic, Jean Barman’s account of a parallel history, transposed to the west of the Rockies, is unexpectedly celebratory. A professor emeritus in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia, Barman is the author of more than 20 previous works, including, most notably, The West Beyond the West: A History of British Columbia, now in its third edition and still regarded as the “premier” account of the province’s beginnings and development. Her latest book, French Canadians, Furs and Indigenous Women in the Making of the Pacific Northwest, offers a corrective to her own canonical narrative, by opening up space for two foundational, but marginalized, groups of people—the French Canadians and indigenous women of her title—who, she argues persuasively, have been denied the recognition that they deserve.

Building on a compendium of biographies constructed by Bruce McIntyre Watson, Barman focuses her attention on 1,240 men with recognizably French-Canadian surnames who were drawn to the Pacific Northwest by the fur trade between the late 18th and mid 19th centuries. Among them, for example, were the six braves gars whose muscle propelled Alexander Mackenzie overland to the Pacific coast—and a knighthood—in 1793, yet whose “inexpressible toil” has seldom been acknowledged. Ditto the dozens of voyageurs who laboured on subsequent expeditions across the region—with Simon Fraser, David Thompson and William Price Hunt, among others—accomplishments that wrote their leaders, but not themselves, into history. Even the Lewis and Clark expedition, Barman argues, although “sponsored by the American government, was a French Canadian affair in its achievement.”

Of Barman’s 1,200-plus French-Canadian subjects, about a third appear to have returned east as soon as their contracts were up, but hundreds of others stayed in the region and put down roots, often establishing families with indigenous women. Whether in present-day British Columbia, Washington, Oregon or adjoining states, these women and men provided the labour and specialized skills—including preparation of skins, translation services and cultural mediation—that made the Pacific fur trade a commercial success and filled the coffers of investors in Montreal, St. Louis and London. It was this profitability, Barman argues, that motivated the British government, in the 1840s, to resist American claims to what they saw as “their just and clear territorial rights”—advanced under the bellicose banner of “54° 40’ or Fight”—by pressing a counterclaim for what would become British Columbia. “Except for French Canadians’ numbers and occupational persistence,” Barman writes, “it is highly likely the Canadian province of British Columbia would not have come into being, and Canada would have no Pacific shoreline.”

By the mid 19th century, many of the French Canadians whom Barman credits with “saving British Columbia for Canada” were actually people of combined canadien and indigenous descent. Yet she never refers to them as Métis. In her telling, their “double inheritance” must always be parsed with careful formality, as “French Canadians, the indigenous women with whom they partnered, and their families.” This precision is necessary, she says, because, unlike the people who lived in that ruined house on the hillside and the others who animate Michel Hogue’s book, fur trade families in the Pacific Northwest had neither the means nor the opportunity to forge a cohesive identity. Personally, based on some of the evidence she presents—French folk tales told in indigenous languages; post fur-trade communities linked by kinship webs; individuals who moved, effortlessly or not, between cultures—I would be inclined to mark this conclusion with a giant asterisk. Further studies required. But there is no doubt that, without even the frangible legal status attained by Canadian Plains Métis, fur trade descendants in the Pacific Northwest were cruelly exposed to colonial concepts of gender, race and nationality. Their double inheritance had to be negotiated “deliberately, determinedly, and at a cost.”

As for Barman’s assertion that métis, in the sense of mixed-race fur-trade descendants, are not always Métis with a capital M—well, it turns out that I have not been paying attention. Over the past several decades, unbeknownst to me and, I suspect, many other Canadians, a debate has been simmering among scholars, politicians and the legal profession about the boundaries of Métis-ness. One of the most fiery interveners in this discussion is Chris Andersen, director of the Rupertsland Centre for Métis Research in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, who puts forward his position, con brillo, in Métis: Race, Recognition and the Struggle for Indigenous Peoplehood. His stance is clear: there were no Métis, sensu stricto, in British Columbia, or in Quebec, or in Atlantic Canada, or (with strictly delimited exceptions) in the United States.

“From my perspective,” he writes, “whether or not an Indigenous individual or community self-identifies as Métis today, and whether or not the Indigenous community is ‘older’ than Red River, if the individual or group lacks a connection to the historical core in the Red River region, it is not Métis.”

At the risk of oversimplifying his argument, his logic runs something like this. The definition of Métis as “mixed race” derives from discredited concepts of race and racial hierarchy (notably white superiority) that were aggressively deployed in the assertion of colonial rule. These weapons can be seen doing their dirty work of dispossession on page after page of both Hogue’s and Barman’s books. Even now, Andersen observes, these “forms of power” continue to exert a poisonous influence on our social relationships, normalizing inequality, oppression and, for those deemed “impure,” diminished status. If your indigeneity is perceived to have been “diluted” by interbreeding, how can you hope to be acknowledged as fully indigenous?

The solution, Andersen argues, is to delegitimize racialized definitions as a basis for Métis identity and look instead for evidence of Métis “peoplehood”—self-aware, politically and culturally actualized identities that existed “prior—and in contradiction—to the settler state’s subsequent, overlapping, and intruding claims.” And where were those defining qualities achieved? Uniquely, Andersen argues, among the Red River, or Plains, Métis. “Only in Red River did the encounters, intimacies, and antagonisms that characterized previous ‘separateness’ bloom into full political maturity: the Métis people of the northern Plains are thus the only Métis people.” In his view, individuals and communities from other parts of the continent who lay claim to Métis identity on the basis of their “mixed” ancestry not only perpetuate the racist indignities of the past but also obscure their true, local identities. “These communities are not Métis,” he writes; “rather, they are whatever they called themselves (assuming such a collective self-­consciousness existed).”

Elsewhere in the book, he drives home a similar point with rhetorical insistence: “The category Métis,” he writes, “is not a soup kitchen for Indigenous individuals and communities disenfranchised in various ways by the Canadian state.”

Those are fighting words, as Andersen is surely aware: his argument is intended not as a salve to historic wounds but as a salutary incitement to what he calls “a more nuanced conversation.” Yet as I review the evidence of injustice and displacement that Hogue and Barman have uncovered—when I think of the flesh-and-blood people who lived on that beautiful hillside and vanished, no one knows when or where—I cannot help but wonder if these new exclusivities based on genealogy are really much of an improvement over old exclusivities based on race. Absolute categories have already caused so much disentitlement and pain: can our ills really be cured by more of the same?

When I ask Susan (who knows all her neighbours back for two or three generations) if there are still Métis families in her part of the country, she says, no, not as far as she knows. Then she reminds me about a childhood friend we’ll call Ronita—Métis by any definition—who grew up in the hills but left; whose mother gave birth in a dugout in a river bank, for lack of anywhere else; who, as a girl, was turned away from church for being poorly dressed. Today, Ronita is loved, admired, successful, struggling. She carries a mixed heritage of strength and disquiet.