Friday, April 15, 2016

Métis are now bona fide Indians - so what is a Métis anyway?

The Supreme Court of Canada's unanimous ruling yesterday that the Métis and non-status Indians are indeed "Indians" within the meaning of the 1867 Constitution is a big deal, both for both the Métis/non-status Indians themselves, but also for the country as a whole. It opens the door to all sorts of negotiations over land claims, enhanced social benefits (including education and health), revised tax status, hunting rights, etc, for an estimated 450,000 Métis and 200,000 non-status Indians.
Just to be clear(-ish), Métis refers to a group of "indigenous people" who have mixed First Nations and European blood. Historically, this referred to the offspring of marriages between local indigenous people and European settlers, mainly between Algonquian women and French trappers and fur traders - métis is actually an old French word meaning "mixed". The most famous example is the 19th century activist Louis Riel. Over the years, many different labels have been used for such people, most of them more or less pejorative, including half-bloods, half-breeds, michif, bois brûlé, chicot, country-born, mixed bloods, Road Allowance people, etc. In 1982, the Métis were included as "aboriginal people" in the Canadian Constitution, after which they became defined as an ethnic group with their own culture, distinct from the First Nations and Inuit peoples.
Non-status Indians, on the other hand, are indigenous people who, for one reason or another, have lost their legal Indian status. Back in the day, this could have been for reasons like a First Nations woman marrying a non-indigenous man, voluntary forfeiture of status (often for a cash payment), missing the initial enrollment for whatever reason, or even for receiving a university education, becoming an ordained minister, or joining the army. Most of these rules were abolished in 1955, but many people still find themselves in limbo as a result of those earlier laws.
Despite the minor legal changes in the last century, both of these groups have found themselves marginalized, basically since the time of Confederation. The late Harry Daniels, a Saskatchewan native-rights lawyer, first launched a case to amend this situation back in 1999, and it is his son, Gabriel, among others, who has finally seen it through to fruition this week.
So, all well and good. What I don't understand, though, is what actually defines a Métis. The progeny of early European settlers and local natives were clearly of mixed indigenous and non-indigenous blood. But their progeny, and succeeding generations? With each generation, and depending on the various marriage arrangements, the mix of blood has become more and more complex, with some presumably becoming less indigenous, and some more, I suppose.
Wikipedia defines the Métis as "descendants of specific mixed First Nations and European ancestry, who self-identify as Métis, and are accepted into their current community", which still does not help me much. The Métis National Council - and they should know, if anyone, I guess - has defined a Metis as "a person who self-identifies as Métis, is distinct from other Aboriginal peoples, is of historic Métis Nation Ancestry, and who is accepted by the Métis Nation". Better, but still pretty vague. In neither definition is the percentage of aboriginal blood important, though.
The best resource I could find is the thoughtful and well-written blog of an Albertan Métis woman transplanted into Quebec. Even she could not definitively say what makes a Métis a Métis, but she does a good job of talking around the issues, from Pan-Métisism to the "little m vs. big M" identity issue, culture vs. ethnicity, etc. Don't expect much clarification, though. As she says, "Being Métis is something you can spend a lifetime trying to understand", and when asked, "How Indian are you?", she is forced to respond, "I have no idea. That's not the point."

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