More than a century after being hanged for treason, Métis leader Louis Riel still has the power to polarize Canadians along ethnic lines.
Riel was born in 1844 in a fur-trading community known as the Red River Settlement, near modern-day Winnipeg. He came to fame in the fight for Métis rights and culture as the newly-formed Canadian government sought to expand its reach into his people’s prairie homeland.
Riel remains today one of the most studied figures in Canadian history and his “blood line” is still a topic of heated discussion because he was of French and Dene heritage.
“People talk about Riel in fractions all the time—that he is 1/8 Indian and so more white than native” says Brenda Macdougall. “When we discuss him in this fashion, it not only undermines who Riel was, it undermines who we are.”
Macdougall is the province’s first Chair in Métis Research at the University of Ottawa, a position funded by an endowment from the government of Ontario and the University of Ottawa. As chair, and a Métis woman herself, she has thought deeply about what the term means.
Historically, it was the French word for a person of mixed European and Indian ancestry, much like the word half-breed meant “mixed” in English. But Macdougall says the term has evolved over time to mean something more profound: a people who share a history, culture, and geography.
She has spent years digging up church records, fur trade documents, and census information to create with colleagues a database of Métis families searchable by name. By cross-referencing those records with more nuanced accounts such as personal diaries, letters, and newspaper articles, she has developed a fuller understanding what it means to be Métis.
It’s not so much about bloodlines, she says, as it is about what she calls kinscapes—a network of family relationships knit together in a certain place and time. By this standard, Riel was as Métis as they come, she says.
This is an especially important time to consider what it means to be Métis. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that Métis and non-status Indians are “Indians” as defined by the 1867 Constitution. This is significant because Indian is a legal term that establishes a direct relationship with the federal government and means Ottawa has fiduciary responsibilities and duties toward people defined as Indian.
These could include rights around negotiating land claims, and exemptions from paying some extended health care and funding for postsecondary education. While the ruling does not suggest a mechanism for these to be provided to Métis and non-status Indians, it does confirm that they have the same rights as First Nations and Inuit.
Macdougall supports the court’s decision but takes issue with its statement that “there is no need to delineate which mixed-ancestry communities are Métis and which are Non-status Indians” because both groups are now Indian under the law.
“Métis are the only people who have gone to war against the Canadian state,” she says. “To now say it doesn’t matter is disrespectful. It’s one more example of colonial erasure.”
As Macdougall points out, the Canadian government had no trouble identifying Métis when it sent soldiers to fight them at Red River and Batoche. The history of the Métis in Canada after 1885 is one of coerced relocations from traditional homelands, “leading to almost complete social, political, and economic marginalization in the twentieth century,” she says.
Today, the Métis are the only Aboriginal people in Canada that decide for themselves who does and does not have citizenship. Historically, the federal government conferred status on Indians, and therefore band membership. While there have been recent examples of Indian bands “adopting” those with no Indian bloodlines and granting them band membership, only Ottawa can confer status.
But the system is different for the Métis. Provincial registries run by local Métis nations have always decided who is one of them. These governing bodies generally require applicants to submit documents showing their genealogy and links with a specific historic Métis community.
It’s not yet clear if Ottawa will continue to honour these registries, but their very existence underscores an important point: “What we see in the historical records, is that Métis kinships are different. These are not random associations of individuals,” says Macdougall.