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Métis History & Culture

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The Métis

The Métis are one of three groups, along with  First Nations and Inuit peoples,  recognized as Canada's aboriginal peoples in the Canadian Constitution.

Canada's First People

A fundamental omission in the Canadian Constitutional amendments is some tangible recognition that Aboriginal people were the original inhabitants of this country and that, from the start, they played a vital and indispensable role in founding and shaping Canada's development. Absent-minded and often racist references to this fact in brochures are patronizing and do not constitute real recognition. A few examples, taken from history, will illustrate that Canada today might have a very different geographic configuration, if indeed it would have existed at all, had it not been for the crucial role played by its Aboriginal people. People of Indian origin originally held title and enjoyed the rights of use and possession over the total area of what is now Canada. This fact was recognized from an Aboriginal perspective by the Royal Proclamation of 1763; which, in turn, provided the basis for subsequent treaties and other means of extinguishing Aboriginal land title. This process was not accomplished entirely without conflict, but the conflict in Canada was minimal compared to the costly wars of extermination that were fought in the USA The Aboriginal people in Canada, for the most part, cooperated peacefully as allies and partners in the business of founding the Canadian nation and expected in return, that promises which had to do with their lands and cultural and economic survival would be kept. It is still not too late to honour these promises. As allies, Aboriginal Nations also played a central role in historical events leading to the formation of Canada. Quebec was regarded as a British Franco-Indian province in deference to the major groups shaping its destiny. During the wars with the USA, Indian forces held the balance of power in Canada and had a critical part to play in protecting their country's borders from persistent encroachments from the South. The Metis of the Northwest formed a Provisional Government under the Leadership Louis Riel in 1869 and laid the foundation for the creation of The Province Manitoba and its subsequent entry into Confederation. It was the Metis who insisted on federation with Canada and resisted American annexation policies.

Two Metis Battles of resistance were fought to protect their land rights and to gain such other democratic freedoms as representation parliament, language rights for both French and English, etc. The Manitoba Act was a negotiated response to the demands of Riel's Provisional government and a condition of its dissolution. There are now more than a million Metis and Indian people in Canada. We are beginning to stand up and speak out on issues. As one of the founding peoples of this country, we are asking for long overdue recognition and redress. Government response to our proposals is likely to determine the future of both the Native people and Canada as a whole. The failure of John A. MacDonald to correctly read the Metis' messages from the Northwest in 1869 and 1885 proved costly for his party and for the cause of national unity-even to this very day.

Historical Relations Between the Métis Peoples & Canada

The origin of the Metis Nation is rooted in the historical fabric of Canada. It was in the Canadian Northwest that they evolved into a new and distinct Aboriginal Nation. The mixed-blood offspring of French fur traders from the North West Company or Scottish and English fur traders from the Hudson's Bay Company and Cree, Ojibway or Saulteaux women formed an ever-increasing proportion of the fur trade population. This cultural evolution commenced in the mid 1600's and reached its height in the late 1800's. With their mixed traditions and command of both European and Indian languages, the Metis were logical intermediaries in the commercial relationship between two civilizations. They adapted European technology to the wilderness, through innovations such as the Red River Cart and York Boat, making it possible to transport large volumes of goods and supplies to and from the far flung outposts of the fur trade. As people of mixed ancestry increased in number and married amongst themselves, they developed a new culture, neither European nor Indian, but a fusion of the two and a new identity as Metis.

By the mid 19th century, Metis villages had appeared in and around fur trade posts from the Great Lakes to the Mackenzie Delta. Then, as now, Metis communities shared a common outlook shaped by their historical circumstances. As provisioners to the North West Company, the Metis of the prairies organized the commercial buffalo hunt. They left their permanent settlements periodically, electing a provisional government for each expedition to make and enforce the law of the hunt. This activity increased the political consciousness of the Metis and was further heightened by the rivalry between the fur trade companies. In 1811, the Hudson's Bay company made a land grant to Lord Selkirk of 116,000 square miles of land in the Red River Valley (southern Manitoba) for an agricultural settlement and source of provisions for the fur trade. Efforts by the Scottish settlers to restrict Metis hunting and trading practices eventually led to their defeat in 1816 at the Battle of Seven Oaks where the victorious Metis led by Cuthbert Grant, Jr. first unfurled the flag of the Metis Nation. In 1821, the amalgamation of the Hudson's Bay Company and North West Company closed many fur trade posts and forced their employees and families to move to the Red River Settlement. Here the Scottish Metis joined with French Metis to defend common interests against the governing Hudson's Bay Company. As the Metis became more concentrated and endogamous, group consciousness grew. The Hudson's Bay Company authorities took this sentiment into account in its administration of the Red River Settlement. They had no choice but to recognize the land holding system of the Metis, where Metis parishes were divided into long narrow river lots as in Quebec, and the Metis tradition of settling these lots without formal legal title. By challenging the Hudson's Bay Company monopoly in the trading of furs, Metis free traders and merchants became the most articulate proponents of a growing Metis nationalism. In 1845, they petitioned the Governor of the Red River Settlement for a recognition of their special status. In 1849, they led an armed body of Metis horsemen who surrounded a court house where Guillaume Sayer was being convicted for trafficking in furs, prompting his release without sentence and a declaration of free trade ("La Commerce est libre") by the Metis. By 1869 the population of the Red River Settlement-one of the largest west of the Mississippi and north of the Missouri on the plains of North America-consisted of 5,720 francophone Metis, 4,080 anglophone Metis and 1,600 non-Aboriginals

Genocide and Assimilation

Genocide is the wholesale killing of a people and is seen as a deliberate strategy by one group of people to wipe out another. When European Nations began their colonial ventures (different time and methodology to their exploration activities), this was a concept which justified gaining title by conquest. As their citizens began to protest the slaughters in Africa in the mid-1880's and the cruelties inflicted on the Aboriginal peoples, these Nations' governments had to find some other way to achieve the same goal. Assimilation is the practice of forcing an individual to stop being who he/she is and to become someone else. This is a process that must be developed over time and done in such a way that "Aboriginal" remains intact, but is a reflection of someone else in the final phase. In this way, a government could say to its citizens, "See we are humanitarian, we practice equality and we have the Aboriginal's best interests at heart"; while in reality they have ripped a peoples' spirit apart leaving them physically intact. The first legislation for Indians in Canada came about in 1850 because of land-hungry settlers and from then on two opposing purposes were used to solve this:

1. Protection of Aboriginals and their land, and
2. The assimilation of Aboriginals.

In 1850 two Acts for Indians existed: one in Upper Canada and one in Lower Canada. It was the 1850 Statute for Lower Canada where the first legal definition of "Indian" was used:

* all persons of Indian blood;
* all persons intermarried with any such Indians residing amongst them;
* all children of mixed marriages residing amongst Indians;
* persons adopted in infancy by any such Indians.

In 1870 another Act raised assimilation. This Act was called An Act to Encourage the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes in the Province and to Amend the Laws Respecting Indians. This Act set up a procedure for male Indians to "enfranchise", that is, renounce Indian status and become like other citizens of the province-"if they were found to deserve such encouragement". Inducements offered were land and a lump sum payment of a share of monies from Treaties and band funds. Assimilation was now entrenched. What exactly was the assimilation process? First, the erosion of self-reliance through taking of the land. Next wax an attack on the physical power and health of the people through disease, alcohol and starvation. Then came the attack on the people's spirit through religion and stereotyping. It progressed to an attack on our intellectual capacity through education. The law was then used to legalize these processes and respect for this law was obtained through police participation. Once weakening the people, our leaders and governing institutions were ignored and isolated. It wasn't enough that our Nations were being decimated from within, then came the strategy of divide in order to conquer. Spiritual practices were outlawed, children were kept separated, then finally the attack began on theheart of our culture-the women. In the case of Metis women, this process wasaccomplished during colonization and ostracizing Metis women-who up until the "White" women arrived were a necessity for trade, sustenance and in many cases survival. Changes to the Indian Act in 1869 allowing bands to enfranchise Indian women who married out (creating the process for defining "Indian" and legitimacy through descent of the male line only), the Battle of Batoche and the Scrip process begun in 1871 in Treaty #1 saw the Metis Nation being directly attacked by the Federal government. This was the beginning of the Metis Nation being "enfranchised" from the Indian Act and beginning the process that resulted in Metis People seeing themselves as The Forgotten People of Canada. It wasn't until 1982 that the Metis Nation was once against recognized as an Aboriginal People of Canada; However the damage was done and the effective entrenchment of divide and conquer is the largest hurdle in these modern times.

Land Reserved for "Half Breed" Families

Section 31 of the Manitoba Act reflected the delegates' demand for land rights to people of one particular ancestry because of that ancestry. The clause reserved 1.4 million acres in the new province "toward the extinguishment" of Aboriginal title claimable by persons of part Indian ancestry. On 27 December 1870 the first Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba reported that on the basis of a recently completed census it appeared that approximately 10,000 persons had the appropriate parentage to qualify for shares of the 1.4 million acres to be reserved for "children of the half breed heads of families". The Government of Canada accepted Governor Archibald's recommendations by Order in Council on 25 April 1871. Archibald issued a public proclamation on June 17 inviting "half breed" residents to make selections of townships from which they might locate their individual allotments. Families stated claims to tracts of land fronting on the rivers and creeks tributary to the Red River, and applied in groups for the sectional townships containing such locations over the summer of 1871. The Minister in charge of the Dominion Lands Branch denounced Archibald's "giving countenance to the wholesale appropriation of large tracts of country by the Half breeds". The Minister advised the governor on 4 November 1871 to "leave the Land Department and the Dominion Government to carry out their policy without volunteering any interference". A Dominion Land Agent, Gilbert McMicken, had arrived in Manitoba in September. In January of 1872 he recommended that the 1.4 million acres should be taken from 68 townships drawn at random, with individual claimants receiving scrip redeemable in land to be located in such tracts of open prairie. Widespread speculation developed in the scrip expected in 1872. Archbishop Taché feared that the parents of "half breed" children would sell their children's' allotments as well as their own and urged the Government of Manitoba to enact legislation prohibiting heads of families from selling any allotments of the 1.4 million acres. A new governor reported that "pretension is that only actual children have right, therefore, heads are trustees". Morris doubted the constitutionality of any legislation of special application affecting land reserved in recognition of Indian title. His doubts were supported by legal advice sought from the Prime Minister. The Province of Manitoba did enact a "Half Breed Land Grant Protection Act" in 1873. The measure gave vendors the right to repudiate sales but did not provide the prohibition demanded by Taché. A new reading of Section 31 in Ottawa in March of 1873 held that marital status was as important as parentage for determining eligibility to share in the 1.4 million acres. An Order in Council amending that of 25 April 1871 declared on 3 April 1873 that children of "half breed" heads of families who were already married in 1870 were deemed to be heads of families in their own right and therefore ineligible to receive allotments. The number of persons entitled to share in the 1.4 million acres instantly shrank from approximately 10,000 to less than 6,000 cases. Legislation confirming the Order in Council received Royal assent on 3 May 1873. Five months later, Governor Morris recommended that the children of "half breed" heads of families dealt out of land entitlements because of their marital status ought to receive compensation in scrip. Legislation providing scrip for excluded "half breeds" was enacted on 19 May 1874. Further legislation refining the meaning of the word children appeared in March of 1875, but was withdrawn after Edward Blake raised a question of constitutionality relative to the inalterability of the Manitoba Act by the Parliament of Canada. The controversial provisions of the legislation withdrawn in March, reappeared in the text of an Order in Council of 26 April 1875.

Affidavits of persons claiming rights under Section 31 and the supplementary statutes and Orders in Council were collected by "Half breed claims commissioners" in 1875. Scrip was distributed in the name of "half breed" heads of families beginning in 1876, normally to persons claiming power of attorney. Certain classes of land near rivers and proposed railways were not claimable with scrip. So much scrip reached the speculative market in 1876, one informed observer guessed that the value of $160 scrip was $50 cash. In the meantime allotments of the 1.4 million acres for unmarried children of "half breed" heads of families were drawn randomly in 240 acre sections from open prairie. The land was subject to local taxation from the moment of allotment even though the patents were not to be issued in the name of allotees until they reached the age of 18 years. As with scrip, the patents were delivered from the Dominion Land Office in Winnipeg to the new owner of the land or to a person claiming power of attorney, normally not to the patentee. Only one third of the nominal patentees were legal owners of their land for as much as one year after the date of patent. An Order in Council of 4 July 1878 provided for the distribution of patents irrespective of the age of the patentees. Provincial legislation defined "half breed" minors as a special class of "infants" empowering them to sell their lands more easily, irrespective of the law of general application concerning "infant estates" in Manitoba. A Provincial Commission of Inquiry conducting hearings from 9 November to 5 December 1881 uncovered numerous irregularities in the sales of "half breed" lands. Subsequently, the Province of Manitoba enacted more retrospective legislation providing cures for the many defects in the titles of "half breed" lands.

Taken from "Statement of Facts in the Matter of the Manitoba Metis Federation vs. the Governments of Canada and Manitoba" by D.N. Sprague

Land Claims

The Metis hold a recognized Aboriginal title to their lands, which was never extinguished. Legislative measures taken by the Federal and Provincial governments have not diminished the legitimacy of the Metis' claim to land. The Metis of Manitoba have chosen litigation to seek a long deferred settlement of their land rights. The preference, however, would be to find a political solution to the issues, one that would take into account contemporary realities and provide for reparations in the form of land and cash settlements. As matters stood in 1989, the Province was willing to let the courts resolve the Metis claim, on the assumption that the major liability will be assigned to the Federal Government. The Federal Government, on the other hand, has exerted every effort to block a litigation process and so far has resisted negotiations. In Saskatchewan, the Province recently transferred several thousand acres of land called "Metis Farms" to community-based Metis authorities-with the proviso that the land be turned over to individual Metis families in "fee simple" in ten years (1998). The Province's rationale for the land concessions is that it is in the economic interest of those Metis concerned and not a settlement of a statutory right to land.

IN Alberta, two bills were before the legislature which address issues of title and local government powers specifically for Metis who live on the "Colony" lands set aside in the 1930's through the Government of Alberta's "Metis Betterment Act". Provision is also made for local governments with delegated by-law making powers. They will operate under the general ægis of a designated Provincial Minster. The Province retains title to the resources on these lands, but has agreed on a revenue-sharing formula. The Province has assured the Metis people directly affected by this legislation that a resolution to their statutory land rights and to a possible entrenchment of Metis Government regimes in the Constitution will not be prejudiced by Alberta's initiative.

The initiatives that Saskatchewan and Alberta have taken to-date to provide some Metis people with a land base are commendable. What has been done however represents efforts to rationalize the status of farms and settlement lands, which had been set aside for some Metis many years ago in an effort to alleviate their severe impoverishment. These provincial measures do not address more general Metis land claims as a legal and unfulfilled obligation of the Federal Government or the recognition of this title in such constitutional statutes as the Manitoba Act, the Dominion Land Act, the Resource Transfer Acts and in innumerable Orders in Council.

Although the Federal Government provided Metis claims research monies between 1976 and 1978, no further action has been taken since that time to deal with the issue as a statutory right of the majority of Metis people. Federal authorities in the past have vacillated between offering an acknowledgment of the historical and legal basis for Metis claims, and dredging up various technicalities to postpone the inevitable day when proper dues have to be paid. Such a day may not be far off if the case now before the courts re-affirm the validity of Metis claims.

Taken from "Canada and the Metis" a booklet prepared in October/89 by the Metis National Council