Canadian Historical Amnesia and the Métis People
- Ute Lischke (Editor) and David T. McNab (Editor)
The Long Journey of a Forgotten People: Métis Identities and Family Histories. Wilfrid Laurier University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Michelle La Flamme
“We are still here” is the first line in the introduction to this volume of essays that captures and celebrates the continuous presence of Métis people in Canada. The volume is arranged to provide a breadth of perspectives on the fluctuating personal, familial, and national identities of the Métis, defined here as “those people of mixed ancestry, largely Indian, French and British.” This extensive coverage challenges previoushistorical accounts of Metis communities by bringing into focus archival sources, recently acquired manuscripts, diaries, journals, and oral and autobiographical accounts of the variously constituted Métis communities in Canada. One of the most striking aspects of this volume is that each of the Metis contributors addresses the distinctiveness of these communities and expertly traces their historical significance. The essays are suitably framed in three distinct parts: “Reflections on Métis Identities,” “Historical Perspectives,” and “Métis Families and Communities.”
The succinct preface and introduction outline the engaging selection that follows in this, the fourth volume published in Wilfred Laurier’s Aboriginal Studies Series. The essays resulted from a Métis symposium entitled “The Métis, Canada’s Forgotten People: The Years of Achievement?” Ironically, this symposium was funded by the Hudson’s Bay Company—one of several ironic relationships that exist between the settler and Aboriginal communities, including the Métis. The inclusion of the Métis people as Aboriginal is based on the recognition of Métis people in Canada’s Constitution, as one of Canada’s Aboriginal people along with “Indians” and “Inuit.” The symposium and, by extension, the essays in this volume, move beyond this legal designation to address other issues that stem from this ideological shift. The symposium was based on a few key concerns—“What has this [legal] recognition meant in a practical way for the Métis? What needs to be done in the future since there is still ‘no place to which the Métis can retreat?’”—and these questions are at the center of each essay. Métis historian and educator Olive Patricia Dickason opens the first chapter with a reflection on her own journey through academia, the completion of a Ph.D. in Aboriginal history, her years teaching, and her current prolific publishing career. David T. McNab, a Métis historian, also uses autobiographical sources but frames his contribution in the form of seven stories interweaving his own narrative with those of the ancestors on both sides of his Métis heritage. The third chapter is of particular significance for literary critics as editor Ute Lischke analyzes several of Louise Erdrich’s writings (both autobiographical and fictional sources) and traces the significance of the Métis and mixed characters in her oeuvre. The next chapter is penned by contributor Jean Teillet, a great grand-niece of Louis Riel, who argued the Powley case before the Supreme Court. Teillet summarizes the significance of this legal case for Métis identities, family histories, and communities and ultimately suggests that the presence of many Métis communities in Canada needs to be acknowledged. This admirable goal is the objective behind this comprehensive volume.
Part II opens with Sandy Campbell, a Métis historian, documenting eighteenth-century military personnel and their Aboriginal wives. His essay includes his own autobiographical link to these descendants and inquires into the tendency of these military men to remain with their wives after their tour of duty in what is now eastern Ontario was over. The next essay, by Nicole St. Onge, also traces a similar interracial marriage phenomenon in Athabasca St. Onge. The editors rightly suggest that these two essays show the “ubiquity of Métis communities in Canada,” and they implicitly insist on a wider, more historically accurate paradigm shift to accommodate these communities within the rubric of Métis communities in Canada. Again, government documents are used to address the Métis at Sault St. Marie and the impact that colonial intervention and, specifically, the mid-nineteenth-century Robinson treaties, have had on these communities. Heather Devine, a Metis historian, also weaves her own search for identity with an analysis of a lost manuscript that may have significance in outlining some of the missing history pertaining to Louis Riel’s resistance movement. The “Keenan manuscript” is a transcription of a diary by an anonymous traveller Devine describes as “a young British nobleman who had spent the larger portion of a year on the plains with a party of Métis buffalo hunters originating in Pembina, North Dakota, around 1871” (198). Devine uses several archival and oral sources to substantiate the legitimacy of this diary and offers her analysis of it to scholars seeking to reconstruct the events surrounding Métis and European involvement in these buffalo hunts. Yet another Métis community is historically documented by Karen J. Travers, who addresses significant families and communities of Drummond Island and Penetanguishene, whose ancestral ties go back to the eighteenth century.
In the third section, autobiographical sources are used by Virginia Parker, Donna G. Sutherland, and again by Patsy McArthur and Jaime Koebel to document each writer’s journey to discover her own Canadian Métis roots. Their contributions both establish and celebrate these multiple community affiliations and document, in personal ways, the consistent denial and shame that resulted in the fragmentation of Métis community ties for many families seeking to assimilate. Personal memoir, anecdotal evidence, national records, and statistical data authenticate the complexities of Métis communities and the semantic debates around who constitutes the Métis. Jean Teillet asserts that Canada is the only country in the world which has “constitutionally recognized a mixed-blood people as ‘Aboriginal.’ The inclusion of the Métis, as one of the Aboriginal ‘peoples’ of Canada and not just as individuals, was intended to settle for once and for all that Métis, as Aboriginal peoples, were included in Canadian Aboriginal policy and law.” However, Teillet argues that this constitutional recognition was undermined at the provincial level, and she reminds readers of the need for substantive change in the litigation of Métis rights and disputes.
The sources for these essays include detailed accounts of the intermarriage between British company men and voyageurs from ledger lists, HBC and NWC and other contracts, bible records, death and baptism records, photos, archival sources, personal family records, national archives, letters, gravestones, newspaper archives, booklets, correspondence, Hudson’s Bay archives, genealogies, biographies, oral histories and the important autobiographical anecdotes by Métis historians, and individual family stories. The volume, with these diverse sources, substantiates the historical existence of Canadian Métis people in ways that will enable historians, educators, and politicians to address these communities in a more realistic way and, taken as a whole, these essays undermine the simple reductive notion that the Red River Métis are the only Métis. As a Métis woman and educator, I was personally thrilled to review this volume of essays, and I expect they will provide very significant contribution to the increasing knowledge of who we are, and have been, as Canadian Métis communities.
- English Canada in Translation by Natasha Dagenais
Books reviewed: Les Belles étrangères: Canadians in Paris by Janes Koustas
- How to Be Here by Allison Calder
Books reviewed: Goodlands: A Meditation and History on the Great Plains by Frances W. Kaye and Man Facing West by Don Gayton
- Snapshot of a Discipline by Ron F. LaLiberte, et. al
Books reviewed: Expressions in Canadian Native Studies by Ron F. LaLiberte, et. al
- Ethnic at Large by Tseen-Ling Khoo
Books reviewed: Ethnic Literature and Culture in the USA, Canada, and Australia by Igor Maver and Precarious Present/Promising Future?: Ethnicity and Identities in Canadian Literature by Janice Kulyk Keefer, Danielle Schaub, and Richard E. Sherwin
- Queer and Now by Stephen Guy-Bray
Books reviewed: In a Queer Country: Gay and Lesbian Studies in the Canadian Context by Terry Goldie
MLA: La Flamme, Michelle. Canadian Historical Amnesia and the Métis People. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #197 (Summer 2008), Predators and Gardens. (pg. 157 - 159)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.