Identity

Critics reject claim Métis exist only in the West

Unama’ki Voyageurs Métis Nation head disputes university researcher’s version of Métis history

Adam Gaudry speaking at the Halifax Central Library
Adam Gaudry, speaking at the Halifax Central Library, says indigenous groups in the East should not be describing themselves as Métis.   Luke Yates

An indigenous leader and a law adviser say the Métis identity is as legitimate in the Atlantic region as it is out West.

Greg Burke, head of the Unama’ki Voyageurs Métis Nation, and Daphne Williamson, a lawyer with experience in aboriginal issues, say the cultural identity of the Métis people should be recognized in the Maritimes, even if their voice hasn’t been strong in the past.

“It’s historically incorrect to say that the Métis originated in the West. No, they didn’t. They gained prominence in the West,” says Williamson.

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, “Métis are people of mixed European and indigenous ancestry, and one of the three recognized Aboriginal Peoples in Canada.”

An indigenous studies professor from the University of Saskatchewan was met with opposition last week after sharing his views on the identity of people who refer themselves as Métis in Eastern Canada.

In his lecture in Halifax, Adam Gaudry, who is of western Métis descent, said the Métis people have a distinct identity, unique to what is now mainly Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

“I want to argue that the Métis Nation, as a people who use that term to describe themselves, is largely originated in what is now Western Canada,” he said. “And I want to challenge the idea that the best way to understand the word Métis, is through the idea of mixedness.”

Politics not biology

Gaudry suggested that the Métis are not a product of biological mixing, but of a shared political history.

He pointed to the events surrounding Louis Riel and the Red River Rebellion as one of the main parts of the early history of the Métis. Subsequently, these people migrated west through what is now Saskatchewan. Gaudry feels this is the shared history of a self-contained people.

He shared his concerns that “there is an attempt to root Métis origins in the East.”

Gaudry said there are groups in Eastern Canada that are only just emerging and these organizations should not be describing themselves as Métis.

But such groups say there has been a long history of violence towards the Métis in the East, including the Acadian Expulsion, and this is why they have only started using this name in more recent years.

For Gaudry, this is a convenient cover for a lack of continuous history.

“The Acadian Expulsion can definitely be understood as genocide, but it wasn’t a genocide against an indigenous people,” said Gaudry. “They were removed because they were the wrong kind of settler. They practised the wrong religion.”

“How Métis understand ourselves is vitally important,” he concluded. “It needs to be respected.“

He added that this view doesn’t preclude the existence of other people who might have emerged after contact with Europeans, only “that those groups, cannot claim an identity that doesn’t belong to them.”

Views challenged

Burke was at the lecture and strongly disagreed with Gaudry’s claims.

“I think what you’re doing here tonight, is you’re poisoning the minds of a lot of people that may not know the history of L’Acadie,” said Burke.

Burke says the people removed during the Acadian Expulsion should be considered Métis, because the majority of them were of mixed French and Mi’kmaq descent.

Away from the lecture, Burke argued that the early history of the eastern Métis in the 1700s is not widely recorded or acknowledged, because the press had yet to emerge and the only means of communication was through occasional letters.

“The difference is, when Louis Riel was doing his thing (1869-70), he had the benefit of telegraphs and the Pony Express riders and newspapers.” says Burke.

Williamson has extensive experience in human rights and aboriginal law. She campaigns for Métis rights alongside Burke and agrees that Gaudry provided an incomplete history, explaining that the fur trade, and with it the Métis, originated in the East, before spreading west.