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Identification

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Aboriginals: Metis/Olive P. Dickason

Canada’s Metis were formally recognized as an aboriginal people in section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. No strings were attached, or definitions attempted. Louis Riel (1844–85), himself one-eighth Chipewyan, who died fighting for the recognition of his people, would have approved. Why, he asked in his last memoir, be concerned about the proportions of Amerindian/white mixture? “No matter how little we have of one or the other, does not filial acknowledgment and love create one law so that we can say ‘We are Metis?’” Few Canadian Metis realize how rare it is for mixed-bloods to have legal recognition as a separate group, even though undefined; the Cape Coloureds of South Africa are among the few who have successfully asserted legal and political rights.

The term “metis” is derived from the Latin verb miscere, which means “to mix, mingle”; in Latin America, the Spanish derivative is mestizo. In Canada, the word “Metis” originally referred to persons of French and Amerindian ancestry; those whose white admixture was English were often called “countryborn,” a term that originated in India, as did “half-caste” (neither of which is in general use in Canada today). In India, “half-caste” referred to class, whereas in the Canadian context the reference was to racial origins; in either case, its implication of social inferiority was clear. “Half-breed” seems to have been first used in the Thirteen Colonies, spreading early in the nineteenth century to Canada, where it remained in general use until after World War II. A term that came to be used in the fur trade but is seldom heard now is bois-brulé. It is said by some to be a French version of the Ojibwa appellation wisahkotewan niniwak, “men partly burned”; an English version was “burnt (or scorched) wood people.” Still another, chicot, has a similar connotation but is hazier as to its origins; it may have sprung from a family name. Today, “Metis,” in both its English and French versions, has been generally accepted in Canada for all Amerindian/white admixtures.

There is no general agreement on criteria for an exact definition. For example, some western Canadians hold that the Metis are only those who can trace their ancestry to the Red River settlement, as recognized in the Manitoba Act of 1980 and in the Dominion Land Acts of 1879 and 1883. However, Treaty 3, the “Northwest Angle Treaty,” signed in 1873, specifically included Metis and even designated land for them; the area the treaty covers is located largely in Ontario, with only a small portion spilling over into Manitoba. In Alberta, the Metis Population Betterment Act was amended in 1940 to require that the Amerindian admixture be not less than one-quarter for a person to claim to be Metis. This was rescinded because of opposition from Alberta’s Metis Settlements General Council on the ground that it violated the fundamental right of the Metis to define themselves. The council accepts as Metis any person with any degree of aboriginal ancestry “who identifies with Metis history and culture.” An earlier version had been “anyone with any degree of Indian ancestry who lives the life ordinarily associated with the Metis.” Neither has been generally agreed upon; the Metis National Council, for example, is considering the following definition: “A person who has an ancestor who received a land grant or scrip under the Manitoba Act, 1870, or the Dominion Land Acts of 1879 and 1883, or who is recognized as Metis by other government agencies, or in church or community records.” In popular usage, criteria can include physical traits, surname, occupation, and place of residence; some would add religion (Roman Catholicism). Others see community acceptance as a prime requirement, which can pose problems for Metis in urban settings, where communities tend not to be clearly defined.

A variety of factors have compounded the problem of Metis identification, the people whom the Cree refer to as wemistikosheekan, “not really a whiteman,” or perhaps as apet’ililew, “half Indian.” Amerindians who missed signing treaties (usually because they were away hunting) and who thus did not officially acquire Indian status are often referred to as Metis; indeed, one proposed definition would include persons with any degree of Amerindian blood who are not registered on a reserve. Amerindians who became enfranchised by such processes as earning a university degree or, in the case of women, marrying “out” automatically lost their status and frequently became known as Metis. In some areas, Metis and non-status Amerindians have added to the confusion by joining forces for recognition of their rights; in others, they keep separate. The 1985 amendment to the Indian Act, Bill C-31, allowing Amerindian women married to non-Amerindians to keep their status and pass it on to their children, added another twist, since it gave Amerindian status to persons who had been previously classified as Metis. Ovide Mercredi, former grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations, is one of these. In other words, as matters stand, not even racial mixing is universally recognized in Canada as essential to being Metis, at least in legal terms. The importance of these identification problems quickly becomes evident when it is remembered that constitutional recognition means that aboriginal rights relating to land and special political status are now involved.

A national Metis registry, to be jointly funded and operated by Ottawa, the provinces, and the Metis themselves, is under consideration; in the meantime, without agreed-upon and consistent criteria, there is no consensus about the numbers of people who can be legally classified as Metis in Canada. The Aboriginal Peoples Survey conducted in collaboration with the 1991 census listed 75,150 persons who reported Metis ancestry, and 137,500 who reported descent from more than one aboriginal category (Indian, Metis, Inuit), as well as non-aboriginal ancestry, out of a total aboriginal population of 1,002,670. The Metis National Council disputes these figures on the ground that the enumeration was incomplete. For one thing, there is no central data-collection system for Metis or non-status Amerindian births and deaths. Comparisons between one census and another are difficult, if they can be done at all, because of changes, in concepts, questions, and procedures. On the question of population growth, two censuses that can be compared are those of 1941, when enumeration of the Metis was halted, and 1981, when it was resumed, because “both made an explicit attempt to individually enumerate persons of mixed Native ancestry.” They indicate a Metis population growth of 177 percent from 35,400 to 98,300. This was a period of growth for aboriginal peoples generally, a trend that has continued. For the Metis, there is also the likelihood that increased public awareness and changes in public attitude have made identification more socially acceptable. In the absence of a national registry, there can only be conjecture on the point.

In the meantime, the Metis National Council and its five provincial affiliates in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia consider that 350,000 would be a more realistic figure. As they break it down, Manitoba accounts for 103,000, Saskatchewan and Alberta for 110,000 each, British Columbia for 70,000, and Ontario for 40,000. These figures were obtained on the basis of membership in the provincial affiliates, along with extrapolations from other sources, particularly historical ones. Incidentally, the official projected growth rate for the Metis during the next 25 years is 43 percent. This is the lowest among aboriginal groups; the Inuit and non-status Amerindians are both projected at 59 percent, and status Amerindians at 52 percent. What is increasingly clear is that history has become more important than biology in defining the Metis, Canada’s hidden people. Or, as writer Murray Dobbin observes, “it was not so much blood that was mixed ... but two dramatically different worlds.”