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Metis Today

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

By the early twentieth century, most Metis were barely eking out a living even in good times; the difficult years of the Great Depression during the 1930s provoked disaster. In 1932 Joseph Dion, an enfranchised adopted nephew of Big Bear, formed L’Association des Métis de l’Alberta et des Territoires du Nord Ouest to help the people get established on their own lands. He was joined by activists Malcolm Norris and James Brady, both one-eighth Amerindian; together they reorganized the association into the Metis Association of Alberta in 1940 and launched an expanded land-settlement program in the northern part of the province. It had some success but could not keep pace with the widespread misery. Metis Maria Campbell vividly described her people’s lot in her best-selling memoir, Halfbreed (1973). The province was finally moved to help, appointing a royal commission in 1934 under the chairmanship of Alberta Supreme Court Judge Albert Freeman Ewing. The commission’s proposal that farm colonies be established in suitable locations, free from white interference, was implemented by the Metis Population Betterment Act of 1938. At the time, this was the most advanced legislation in Canada relating to Metis. Of twelve locations initially selected in north-central Alberta, ten were opened for settlement. Not all communities agreed to participate; Grande Cache, for one, held aloof. Today, eight participating settlements remain, comprising a total of 539,446 hectares and a combined population of nearly 6,000.

Administration is coordinated with the province through the Metis Settlements General Council (before 1990, known as the Alberta Federation of Metis Settlement Associations). The discovery of oil and gas triggered a series of confrontations between the province and the settlements over questions about land rights and royalties; in 1990 the Metis land base was entrenched in the Alberta constitution. With the establishment of an appeal tribunal and co-management agreement, the Metis settlements have won substantial control over their own affairs, and negotiations continue for further devolution.

Grand Cache entered into its own negotiations with the province when a coal mine began operation in the area. This resulted in 1,680 hectares, including a residential section, being set aside for the Metis. It proved to be insufficient for them to continue hunting and trapping, since the designated land did not have the necessary natural resources. Consequently, wage labour has become the mainstay for most of the resident Metis at Grand Cache.

The Metis of these settlements represent two principal traditions: those who trace their origins to Red River, and consequently to French, Algonquian (Cree, Ojibwa), Iroquoian, or Athapaskan ancestry and who are mostly Roman Catholic; and those from farther north, who are largely descended from Scots, Scandinavians, Athapaskans, Cree, and Inuit and who are predominantly Anglican. Farming, ranching, and intermittent wage labour are principal subsistence activities, supplemented with hunting, trapping, and fishing (where available). A study of the social structure of one of the settlements, Kikino (Beaver Metis Colony), has revealed that 75 percent of its population belongs to five extended families, each settled in its own neighbourhood. Unrelated families live in the more remote sections of the colony and are both physically and socially isolated. Today, although there is more intermarriage between the families than in the past, social activities and organizations still tend to remain within particular extended families. This is also evident in religion, for each extended family usually identifies with a particular church. Prevailing languages are English and Cree, with the latter for the most part being the second language. Baseball is the social activity that cuts across family lines and involves the community as a whole. In this social structure, and in politics as well, males are dominant. Factionalism reflects the primacy of family loyalty over that to the community. As with other fur-trading communities that were directly affected by the establishment of the settlements, living conditions improved somewhat in Kikino under the new regime.

Nearby is the larger mixed community of Lac La Biche, which also benefited from the Alberta settlement program even though it did not formally participate. Its location on fur-trade routes resulted in posts being built there in the late 1790s. The French-speaking element, mostly from Red River, coalesced around the Oblate mission that was established in 1853. It forms a community that is still tightly knit, even though the influence of the church is lessening and the trend is towards marrying out and establishing nuclear families. Living is largely off the land; logging and road work provide intermittent wage labour. Many of the adults are trilingual, speaking English and Cree as well as French. Lac La Biche has the advantage of a commercial fishery cooperative in which both whites and Metis participate; tourism is also being encouraged. It is not known with any certainty how representative Kikino and Lac La Biche are of northern Metis communities today.

In 1940 Saskatchewan launched a program to train Metis to be farmers which eventually led to the establishment of eleven government farm colonies. One of these, of about 1,200 hectares, was transferred in 1968 to Lebret Farm Land Foundations, owned and operated by Metis and non-status Amerindians. Negotiations to encourage farm colonies in other Metis communities, as well as to give the Metis greater control of certain provincial programs (like housing and welfare) and a share of resource revenues, ended in disagreement in 1987. In the meantime, Saskatchewan, with Manitoba and Quebec, has programs for the rehabilitation of fur production in overexploited areas which, while not specifically for the benefit of the Metis, are obviously important for the maintenance of hunting and trapping. Registered traplines were introduced in 1940 in Manitoba; six years later they were adopted in Saskatchewan. At first these caused some difficulty since they interfered with traditional land use; however, they have proven useful for the control of trapping and so have been beneficial in those regions where agriculture is not practicable and industrial development not currently foreseen. In Saskatchewan, some programs combine fur production with farming.

The Canadian constitution of 1982 has not gone farther than the simple recognition of existing aboriginal and treaty rights. The defeat of the Charlottetown constitutional accord in the 1992 referendum took down with it a side deal, the Metis Nation Accord, by which Ottawa had agreed to be the primary agent in negotiating self-government with the Metis. For almost two centuries the Metis had been fighting to wrest this concession from Ottawa; the final irony was that many of them were among those who voted against the Charlottetown agreement, which they felt was being pushed through too fast. As matters stand now, Ottawa has reverted to its original position that the Metis, as ordinary citizens, are a provincial responsibility.

The Metis National Council’s analysis of the Aboriginal Peoples Survey of 1991 presents a picture of the Metis as marginalized, a situation that the council blames on the denial of Metis access to federal services and benefits which are available to other aboriginal peoples. The council reports that about 17 percent of Metis over the age of 15 have less than grade 9 education, compared with 13.9 percent of the total population. In at least one respect Metis were found to be worse off than Amerindians: only 3.7 percent of Metis had completed university education, compared with 5.1 percent of Amerindians and 11.4 percent of the general population. Metis women do somewhat better than men in this regard: 4.1 percent have university education, compared to 3.4 percent of the men. The only post-secondary institution controlled by the Metis, the Gabriel Dumont Institute, was established in Saskatoon by the Metis Society of Saskatchewan in 1980. The Manitoba Federation plans to establish a Louis Riel Institute.

Employment presents no brighter a picture: the unemployment rate for Metis more than 15 years old is 19 percent, almost double the national average of 10.3 percent. Of those who are employed, 60 percent earn $10,000 a year or less. On the positive side, Ontario has the highest Metis participation rate in its labour force, 73 percent, well above the national rate of 68 percent. Besides that, employed Metis of Ontario share with the Northwest Territories the highest proportion of those earning $40,000 a year or over: in Ontario, 10 percent, and in the Northwest Territories 17.7 percent. This probably reflects the fact that 19.1 percent of employed Metis in Ontario, and 19.7 percent in the Northwest Territories, are in professional occupations, much higher than the national average of 6.2 percent for the Metis. The general population’s national average for those earning over $40,000 is 12.7 percent.

The Metis of Manitoba and Saskatchewan have not only the highest unemployment rates but also the lowest employment income. In Manitoba the unemployment rate is 20.1 percent, and 64.2 percent of those employed earn less than $10,000 annually; in Saskatchewan, the figures are 20.9 percent for the unemployed and 67.8 percent for those earning $10,000 a year or less.

The fact that the constitutional recognition of the Metis as an aboriginal people has not been followed by the creation of federal programs commensurate with those in place for other aboriginal peoples is a continuing irritant. In the words of the Metis National Council, this inaction “is particularly discriminatory in view of the fact that the Metis already face serious disadvantages relative to other Aboriginal peoples due to their lack of a land and resource base and the application to them of federal and provincial personal income and corporate tax laws.” An immediate goal is to secure a land and resource base, a “Metis Homeland.”

Their sense of the importance of their own history, and the need to keep it a living memory, has been a central theme in Metis cultural activities since the battle of Batoche. Within a few years of the battle, an annual commemoration became a major ongoing event that today attracts thousands. As well, in 1887 a group of former friends and associates of Riel, concerned that the Metis side of the story be presented, formed the Union Nationale Métisse Saint-Joseph de Manitoba for the purpose of collecting material and researching events relating to the events of 1869–70 and 1885. A result was the publication of A.-H. de Trémaudan’s Histoire de la nation métisse dans l’Ouest canadien in 1935. Promoting awareness of Metis history has been a principal activity of cultural groups ever since. In 1972 the Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF) Press was founded, later to evolve into the Pemmican Press, based in Winnipeg. This press was the publisher of the Michif Dictionary, mentioned earlier. The Louis Riel Historical Society, founded in Edmonton in 1986, aims to establish a museum and archives as part of a Metis cultural resource centre. Today, it functions within the Metis Nation of Alberta.

The resurgence of Metis nationalism has been signalled by the intensification of political activity which began in the mid-1960s. Spurred by such issues as the federal government’s white paper of 1969 on Indian policy and the patriation of the Canadian constitution in 1982, the Metis have organized and reorganized in an astonishing array of groups, all dedicated to improving their lot one way or another.

Metis of the three prairie provinces joined forces in 1970 to form the Native Council of Canada. When the council assigned its two seats at the 1983 First Ministers Conference to non-status Amerindian delegates, breakaway Metis reorganized themselves into the Metis National Council. This body, as the voice for the five provincial organizations west of Quebec, does not speak for the Maritimes or for the Northwest Territories. The Native Council has reorganized itself as the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples.

Metis women have also been actively organizing. The Native Women’s Association of Canada was formed in 1974, and the Women of the Metis Nation followed in 1986; in 1995 the latter merged with Alberta Metis Women, an offshoot of the Metis Nation of Alberta. Social problems, such as family violence, alcoholism, and substance abuse, are principal concerns. The growing awareness that these problems can best be solved within the communities themselves has given rise to the healing circle movement. As with the aboriginal people generally, most Metis politicians are men, whereas most of those involved in the healing circles are women.

Social and political activity has its counterpart in the arts. While there is no single art style that can be labelled Metis, still the blending of aboriginal and non-aboriginal themes was rapid and is widespread; beaded floral embroideries are a good example. Cross-fertilization has produced masterworks in architecture, sculpture, and painting as well as through a whole range of crafts, including fashion design. Woodsplint basketry and Nascapi hunters’ coats illustrate the last two categories. In architecture, the work of Douglas Cardinal, who designed the Canadian Museum of Civilization, is internationally acclaimed; in painting, works that immediately come to mind are those of Daphne Odjig, Jane Ash Poitras, Alex Janvier, and George Littlechild; in sculpture, Bill Reid is a pre-eminent figure.

Film-making, literature, theatre, dance, and music – all have benefited from the Metis imprint. Film-making in particular has been flourishing since the advent of television and has brought such figures as Gil Cardinal to national prominence. Certain forms of country music and dance, derived from Celtic traditions as well as from other types of European folk dancing, have become closely associated with the Metis; the Red River jig, dating back to the beginning of the nineteenth century, has been called “one of few truly Canadian dance forms.” The National Film Board’s The Fiddlers of James Bay (1980) celebrated the fiddling tradition the Metis inherited from the Scots and made their own. In the realm of creative writing, Thomas King and Jordan Wheeler are among a growing number attracting national attention. Memoirs, such as Campbell’s Halfbreed (1973), noted earlier, and more recently Brian Maracle’s Back on the Rez (1996), remain a favourite genre for Metis and native writers generally. The same can be said for social commentaries, such as Emma LaRocque’s Defeathering the Indian (1975) and Beatrice Culleton’s partially fictionalized In Search of April Raintree (1983).

However, it is in the political arena that the greatest Metis activity is taking place, particularly since the 1982 Constitution Act. On the question of land, not only do the Metis disagree with the federal government on the issue of scrip, they have not forgotten their claim that the 1870 Manitoba grant of 1.4 million acres to “children of Metis” was mismanaged so that only a fraction of the grant remained with those for whom it was ostensibly intended. A suit launched in 1985 on behalf of all the Metis of Manitoba for the land in question, involving much of downtown Winnipeg, has since been allowed to lapse. The current lieutenant governor of Manitoba, Yvon Dumont, named in 1993, is a Metis.

Forming as they do such a small segment of Canadian society, the Metis have still played a unique role in Canada’s history. As they see it, this reflects the fact that they were born of the meeting of two worlds, the first Canadians. Although their long official eclipse has ended, the work of rebuilding the Metis as a people has just begun, a people whom many would define more on the basis of their history than on any other factor.