Metis

Métis in Canada are a people with their own unique culture, traditions, way of life, collective consciousness and nationhood.

Métis peoples have developed a rich material culture, which includes the recognizable Métis sashes, intricate beadwork, moose hair tufting, Red River carts, and so on.

However, Métis identity is frequently misinterpreted by non-Métis to refer simply to Aboriginal-European ancestry.

Métis stems from the Latin verb miscēre, “to mix.” The word initially referred to the children of these relationships, but over generations it came to refer to the distinct cultural identities these communities developed.

“Métis,” is a term with a history at least as complex and contentious as “Indian.”   In the most general sense, the term “Métis” has been used since the eighteenth century to refer to people of mixed Aboriginal and European ancestry, and particularly to those people with family roots deriving from intermarriages arising from the fur trade, primarily the French fur traders and local women.

This general definition glosses over the more specific histories and traditions of people of mixed ancestry whose family roots lie in specific and distinct communities with specific cultural and linguistic traditions.

Some groups who may be identified as Métis prefer to be called Half-Breeds (in recognition of their English/Scottish rather than French heritage). Others prefer the term Otipemisiwak which is a Cree term meaning “the people who rule themselves.”

Many Métis groups have adopted terms of identity that separate their community from other Métis communities. An abundance of independent small-scale Métis societies are, perhaps problematically, represented by provincial and national organizations that seek to expand and develop further recognition of Métis rights in a collective sense.

This relationship is not always mutually agreed upon or even desired by some communities.

The term “Métis” is popularly associated with the specific Red River communities that participated in the Northwest Rebellion of the later nineteenth century that was led by Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont. 

For some people who identify as Métis, traceable ancestry to these communities is requisite, and the wider application contentious.

For other Métis communities, the popular misconception that a traceable ancestry to the Red River is a requirement of being “authentically” Métis is problematic.

The use of “Métis” as either a generic or very specific term seems to vary across community and geographic regions.  It is always worth paying attention to local context before committing oneself to a particular use in conversation.

The Constitution of 1982 recognizes Métis as an Aboriginal people, but it was not until the Powley case of 2003 in which the question of Métis rights was at stake that the Supreme Court established legal criteria for Métis identity, including: self-identification as a Métis individual, ancestral connection to an historic Métis community, and acceptance by a Métis community.

This process of legal definition is likely to continue as questions of rights are further contested. 

Despite the continued development of this term, one thing is certain:  once again, in Canadian society, two sets of definition, one based in law and legislation, the other in family tradition and community practice, operate on parallel, and often conflicting paths.

In 2011, 451,795 people identified as Métis. They represented 32.3% of the total Aboriginal population and 1.4% of the total Canadian population.

Métis represented 8.0% of the total population of the Northwest Territories, 6.7% of Manitoba's population, and 5.2% of the Saskatchewan population.

Among census metropolitan areas, Winnipeg had the highest population of Métis, 46,325 people, or 6.5% of its total population. It was followed by Edmonton with 31,780, Vancouver (18,485) and Calgary (17,040). In addition, 11,520 Métis lived in Saskatoon and 9,980 in Toronto.

During renewed First Nations activism in the 1960s, political organizations were formed or revived among the Metis as well.

The Lake Nipigon Métis Association was the first to be organized in Ontario, resulting in several other Métis community groups and a major provincial political association of some 100,000 members (Ontario Métis and Non-Status Indian Association).

The "Alberta Federation of Métis Settlement Associations" was established in the mid-1970s and provides a collective voice for the Métis Nation of Alberta. During the constitutional talks of 1989, the Métis were recognized as one of the three Aboriginal peoples of Canada.

In 1990, the Alberta government restored land titles to Métis communities through the "Métis Settlement Act", replacing the Métis Betterment Act. Originally the first Métis settlements in Alberta were called Colonies and consisted of:

  • Buffalo Lake or Beaver River Metis Settlement (Caslan)
  • Cold Lake
  • East Prairie Metis Settlement (south of Lesser Slave Lake)
  • Elizabeth Metis Settlement(east of Elk Point)
  • Fishing Lake Metis Settlement(Packechawanis)
  • Gift Lake (Ma-cha-cho-wi-se) or Utikuma Lake Metis Settlement
  • Kikino Metis Settlement
  • Goodfish Lake Metis Settlement
  • Marlboro
  • Paddle Prairie (or Keg River) Metis Settlement
  • Peavine Metis Settlement (Big Prairie, north of High Prairie)
  • Touchwood
  • Wolf Lake (north of Bonnyville)

In the 1960s, the Cabinet Order-in-Council removed the settlements of Marlboro, Touchwood, Cold Lake and Wolf Lake from the Metis Colonies list, leaving the eight modern Metis Settlements.

The position of Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians was created in 1985 as a portfolio in the Canadian Cabinet.

The Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development is officially responsible only for Status Indians and largely with those living on Indian reserves.

The new position was created in order provide a liaison between the federal government and Métis and non-status Aboriginal peoples, urban Aboriginals, and their representatives.

The Métis National Council was formed in 1983, following the recognition of the Métis as an Aboriginal Peoples in Canada, in Section Thirty-five of the Constitution Act, 1982. The Métis National Council is composed of five provincial Métis organizations, namely,

  • Métis Nation British Columbia
  • Métis Nation of Alberta
  • Métis Nation–Saskatchewan
  • Manitoba Métis Federation
  • Métis Nation of Ontario

The Métis people hold province-wide ballot box elections for political positions in these associations, held at regular intervals, for regional and provincial leadership.

Métis citizens and their communities are represented and participate in these Métis governance structures by way of elected Locals or Community Councils, as well as provincial assemblies held annually.



Article Index:

A primer on who qualifies as a Metis or non-status Indian

The Supreme Court of Canada declared Thursday, April 14, 20016, that Canada’s 600,000 Metis and non-status Indians are indeed “Indians” under the Constitution. The decision has raised questions about who qualifies as Metis or non-status Indian, but the answer might be a little complicated.

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