When one group of humans takes over territory belonging to a different group, centuries often pass before, here and there, a widespread sense of guilt evolves along with a desire for reconciliation.
Our world could benefit from examining the fault-filled, yet also enlightened, Canadian experience. In 23 August 2017 I did publish a blog entitled “My Inuit Friends”. The Métis are one more example and their story is well worth knowing, Their name is French for “mixed” - a name that could be applied to all of Canada with its 2 European founding nations, France and the United Kingdom, its 634 First Nations, speaking over 50 distinct languages and numbering 1.3 million people, its 60,000 Inuit, its 400,000 Métis, and its 470,000 refugees from numerous countries all part of a Canada of a current population of 37 million diverse people. How do you govern amicably such a diverse democratic nation? Yet, it actually rates #2, after Switzerland and before Germany, in the ratings of world nations. Would not this imply that aboriginals and half breeds should be more grateful?
The Federal Government has too long left many Native affairs to the provinces, thus allowing more time and funds for capitalism’s constant demand for growth at the expense of the environment which is of greater concern for Natives. How do politicians please both and remain elected?
In 2013, Canada’s Supreme Court reminded Canada that it had not lived up to The Manitoba Act of 1870 that allowed the Métis to retain 1.4 million acres, including Winnipeg, then in 2016 it ruled that the Métis are not “Status Indians” under the Constitution, so are free like the Inuit to go their own way.
In September 2018, David Chartrand, president of MMF for 20 years, met with Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, in Ottawa and signed a deal that allowed Carolyn Burnett, Federal Minister for Crown-Indigenous Relations, to fly to Winnipeg to announce Reconciliation that included: $154 million to help MMF reorganize, $500 million over 10 years for housing, $1.7 billion over 10 years on education and child care for Indigenous people, and the Métis right to write and enforce their own laws.
The Métis originated in Eastern Canada in the 1600s, being the children of European fishermen and their Native wives, but it was the Red River region, now Manitoba, of Rupert’s Land, where the Métis Nation was first established after the fur trade moved west in the 1700s and 1800s, and many French-Canadian fur traders found Native wives, mainly Cree, Ojibwa and Saulteaux. Their children formed a new Nation in yet-to-be Canada - the 'Western Métis'.
Prince Rupert's Land was a 3.9 million square kilometre land mass covering northern Quebec and Ontario, and parts of Nunavut then expanding to over 7 million sqkm reaching to the Pacific Ocean that was given to the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670 by Charles II and sold to the new Canada in 1868 for $1.5 million. In 1867 The US had purchased Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million and was willing to pay more for Rupert’s Land but the UK ordered it sold to Canada where Canada’s first prime minister, John A. MacDonald, considered it a natural extension of Canada. In 1811 the HBC gave the Red River area to Earl Selkirk for a Scottish settlement. The Catholic Métis, the Presbyterian Scots, and Anglican English settlers did not want to be part of either Canada or the USA. They had developed good relations among themselves and prospered during the economic Panic of 1857 that was so devastating elsewhere.
The Métis had a distinct way of life that incorporated aspects of both French-Canadian and Native cultures. Most of the male fur traders were French and Catholic. So the Métis were exposed to both the Catholic and Native belief systems. Native women not only provided companionship for the fur traders, they also aided in their survival. They were able to translate the languages, sew new clothing, cook food, and help resolve any cultural issues that arose. The First Peoples had survived in the harsh west for thousands of years, so the fur traders benefited greatly from their knowledge of the land.
There were many independent fur traders but the business was dominated by the British Hudson’s Bay Company that at first discouraged its employees from marrying Native women before realizing it could do little to stop the practice whereas the French-Canadian North-West Company encouraged it. Both companies benefited greatly from their talented Métis employees. The HBC, that was founded in London in 1670, is now a retail business with headquarters in Brampton, Ontario, and stores throughout Canada, the USA, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany. The NWC was founded in 1789 in Montreal with the merger of smaller companies. It grew to compete successfully with the HBC and numerous skirmishes occurred for the lucrative fur trade. In 1821 the British government forced the two companies to merge to cease the feuding.
The first generation Métis children started blending parts of both languages into the new Michif
language that originated with Métis people in Ontario and Manitoba in the 1700s. The language spread west with the fur trade, becoming an official bartering language. There were several regional dialects. Most were a combination of French and Cree, but, depending on the area, Michif also included some Sioux or Ojibwa. The language is dying with only 400 today who still speak it.
The Métis flag is the oldest flag that originated in Canada, first flown in 1814. Actually the Métis had two flags. Both had the same design, an infinity sign, but were different colours: either red or blue. Red was the colour of the Hudson’s Bay Company, while blue was the colour of the North-West Company. The infinity sign had two meanings: It represented the joining of two distinct cultures. It also represented the immortality of the Métis Nation.
Friction? Few countries have escaped internal conflicts. The 1861-1865 US civil war cost 620,000 lives whereas Canada’s 1885 North-West Rebellion (also called the North-West Resistance, Saskatchewan Rebellion, Northwest Uprising, or Second Riel Rebellion) took all of 91 lives.
It was a brief and unsuccessful uprising by the Métis people under Louis Riel and an associated uprising by First Nations Cree and Assiniboine of the District of Saskatchewan against the government of Canada. Many Métis felt Canada was not protecting their rights, their land, and their survival as a distinct people. Riel had been invited to lead the movement of protest. He turned it into a military action with a heavily religious tone. This alienated Catholic clergy, whites, most Natives and some Métis. But he had the allegiance of a couple hundred armed Métis, a smaller number of other Aboriginal people and at least one white man at Batoche in May 1885, confronting 900 Canadian army soldiers plus some armed local residents. Despite some notable early victories at Duck Lake, Fish Creek and Cut Knife, the rebellion ended when the Métis were defeated at the Siege of Batoche. The remaining Aboriginal allies scattered. Riel was captured and put on trial. He was convicted of treason and despite many pleas across Canada for amnesty, he was hanged in Regina. Riel became a heroic martyr to Francophone Canada, and ethnic tensions escalated into a major national division. Thanks to the key role that the Canadian Pacific Railway played in transporting troops, Conservative political support for it increased and Parliament authorized funds to complete the country's first transcontinental railway. Although only a few hundred people were directly affected in Saskatchewan, the long-term result was that the Prairie Provinces would be controlled by English speakers, not French. A much more important long-term impact was the bitter alienation French speakers across Canada showed, and anger against the repression of their countrymen.
English-speaking Canadians now consider Riel a national hero even, among other plaudits, printing in 1970 a postage stamp in his honour.
The cruel and shameful lack of concern for other species by far too many of our species has massively reduced the numbers of bison and fur-bearing animals, forcing the Métis to adapt, and they are adapting well. Scores of Metis now lead in many fields including artists, book authors, film making, legal, medical, political, professional sports.
Just room for one example: Maria Campbell, author, broadcaster, and filmmaker, fluent in Cree, Michif, Saultreaux, and English has had four of her works published in 8 countries and translated into Chinese, French, German, and Italian.
May the Métis continue to prosper in the diversity that is Canada. There are smaller groups of Métis in the USA but there they had to decide between tribal or European identity and are not as free as in Canada to be Métis.
Ye Olde Scribe