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Why Joseph Boyden and I need to stop meddling in Métis identity

The shoreline of Georgian Bay near Killarney, ON, where the author's family is from.

I am thinking long and hard these days about my "status" as Métis.

I have an identity card in my wallet issued to me by the Métis Nation of Ontario (MNO), but I am recognizing that to be Métis in the nation called Canada involves being part of a people that has its roots -- and remains a vibrant Indigenous nation -- in western Canada. I don't have those ancestral roots or that present-day connection. I have been erroneously calling myself Métis, as has Joseph Boyden, based on a belief that being Métis equates with having a racial "mixedness" marked by biology.

Both of us have been meddling in Métis identity.

History matters to Métis identity

Joseph Boyden has been meddling in Métis identity to bolster his brand as an award-winning author. He  has been meddling in Métis identity because non-Indigenous Canadians do not understand -- and are mostly content to remain ignorant of -- the value and history of the Métis Nation.

Here is how University of Saskatchewan professor Adam Gaudry, who is Métis, describes that history.

Flashpoints often stand out: The Battle of Seven Oaks in 1816, the Red River Resistance of 1869–70, and the Saskatchewan Resistance of 1885. The telling of this history is important, since it reminds us that Métis were content to be Métis, and were willing to go to war to remain that way. These old Métis, our political, social, cultural, and economic elders, did not view their identity as a waypoint on a longer journey. This was who they were, and nobody was going to take that from them.

The Boyden debacle began when Indigenous people with solid knowledge of their culture and of their places in community called him out on his claims to Indigenous ancestry last winter. Eventually, the award-winning author agreed he needed to occupy less public space. I welcomed this humble stance and decided to let him off the hook, at least a little, for what I perceived as spurious links to either blood ancestry or community.

Unfortunately, in the poker game that passes for Boyden’s  life, he recently slapped down two important cards: The results of a DNA test and a card attesting to membership in the Ontario’s Woodland Métis Tribe (as of 2012). The 4,000 word article Boyden published online in early August describing various "proofs" of Indigenous roots struck me as both inauthentic and ridiculous.

It also made me hopping mad, and that anger at Boyden has forced me to examine my own Métis myth-making.

My Métis identity crisis

I was born in Sudbury to a mother whose parents immigrated to Canada in the 1920s from Spain. My father's ancestors rest in graveyards on Manitoulin Island and in the town of Shebaonaning (now called Killarney) on the shores of Georgian Bay. My father's grandmother, Marie Bemanakinang, was born on the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve on the island that is a home to the Manitous. Thanks to the longstanding and ongoing sexism of Canada’s Indian Act, she was removed from the Indian registry when she married a non-Indigenous man in 1875.

One of my aunts filed an application for Indian status in the 1980s and was rejected because the surname she provided for her grandmother, an anglicized "Barnard" that appeared on some government records, did not match Marie’s birth surname. When I learned that my elderly aunt was not going to pursue registry under the Indian Act, I accepted that my chance to be included in the second-generation cut-off had evaporated.

The consolation prize was to identify as Métis, and that's what I did without blinking an eye.

I defined Métis as mixed-blood people. That fit me.

Like Joseph Boyden, I figured I'd found a niche.

It has been a rude awakening to accept, as I now do, that being Métis in this country is about a whole lot more than being a mixed-race person with an Indigenous ancestor. 

Racial profiling to create métis

Take away the capital M in Métis. Replace it with a small “m” to create métis -- a bio-racial category that the good folks who are often referred to as "the historic Métis" are holding up to scrutiny and taking issue with.

Gaudry has this to say about the racial profiling that pervades Canada’s mythology about the Métis:

In Canada’s long-standing assimilationist push, Métis were first transformed by policy into “half-breeds,” a category significantly broader than the Métis Nation that included all those Indigenous people who did not fall under the legislative purview of the Indian Act, but were not considered white either. Several decades after this conglomeration was created, the term “half-breed” was deemed pejorative. The term was replaced with the more politically palatable term “Métis,” but without regard for its original meaning of a national formation of Indigenous people who lived on the northern plains, sharing a common culture, possessing a collective sense of self, and referring to themselves as Métis. 

When I first understood that people within the historic Métis Nation -- rightly called citizens of the Métis Nation -- were upset at people from eastern Canada who have identified as métis, it took me awhile to acknowledge that their desire to preserve nationhood meant that I needed to look into my own misuse of métis identity.

In my work as an activist, I have been an ally to First Nations involved in struggles for land rights. As a reader and writer, I have sought to understand and comment on treaty-making, colonization, reconciliation and the political realities of First Nations and of the Métis Nation. It’s clear to me that the Métis Nation in what are now Western provinces lives and breathes as a collectivity.

Can I claim to be part of that Métis Nation when my adoption of a racially based mixed identity is more about seeking a place of refuge than about having true links to an actual Indigenous Nation -- one that has survived the slings and arrows of the Canadian state just as the Algonquin or Mohawk nations have survived? Can Joseph Boyden?

We cannot if we base our métis identity only on being mixed race.

In fact, using personal myth-making to create an Indigenous identity reveals us to be adult people who are mixed up. Truth is the medicine we need.

Debra Huron is a feminist, a mother, a wife, a writer, a tree lover, a baseball fan and one of millions of people living on the unceded territory of the Algonquin Nation in the Ottawa region. She thinks she might be able to get away with calling herself Anishinaabe-Kwe. 

This article is Part 1 in a two-part series. Read Part 2 here.

Image: Debra Huron.

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