Constructing Métis Identity in Canada

Reviewed by Sarah MacKenzie

Deriving from a 2009 Aboriginal Policy Research Conference in Ottawa, Christopher Adams, Gregg Dahl, and Ian Peach’s collection, Métis in Canada: History, Identity, Law and Politics, brings together a vastly diverse collection of essays, reflective of the multifaceted nature of the debates relating to Métis identity in Canada. Published ten years after the landmark R. v. Powley case (2003), in which the Supreme Court ruled that Sault Ste. Marie Métis are entitled to Aboriginal hunting rights, the collection expressly endeavours to enhance and nuance Canadian perceptions of the case’s relevance. Given the breadth of perspectives presented by the contributors, along with the text’s overall contribution to discussions of Indigenous identity in Canada, it comes as no surprise that the editors are experts in Aboriginal policy.

Authored by a range of interdisciplinary contributors—both Métis and non-Indigenous—working in relevant fields of policy/law, political studies, and Indigenous studies, the essays are divided into four broad sections: “Identity,” “History,” “Law,” and “Politics.” The three essays included in the first section contend with the development of contemporary Métis identity, with Gloria Bell examining artistic/literary portrayals constructed in tandem with the emergence of nineteenth-century Great Lakes-area Métis communities, Laura Lee Kearns drawing upon narratives produced by Métis women so as to “reconstruct” feminine perceptions of identity, and Gregg Dahl discussing the terminological shift from “half breed” to “Métis” as it bears on identity. Section two—“History”—deals with the ethnogenesis of Métis identity as not merely “anthropological” or “social,” but extremely “political.” Darren O’Toole, basing his argument upon “revisionist” social history, counters Bell’s earlier suggestion that Métis identity developed in the Great Lakes region before it did on the western plains, contending that institutional practices are the primary factors in identity construction and that any comprehensive understanding of Métis in Canada must thus draw extensively upon political history. Liam J. Haggarty, engaging with commonplace fur trade narratives, which he deems oversimplifications of Métis economic history, advocates an alternative conception of economic evolution initiated previous to the fur trade era, while Tom Flanagan and Glen Campbell unpack newly found writings of Louis Riel. The first two sections together offer a comprehensive evaluation of the historical trajectory leading to contemporary understandings of Métis ethnicity.

Indicative of the conflicting interpretations of R. v. Powley’s social relevance present in Canada, section three, “Law,” contains only two essays, each concerning Métis (and Aboriginal) rights. Examining the topic through opposing lenses, the articles consider the way in which Métis identity has been constructed from the outside by judicial/legal systems reliant upon categorical classification. Ian Peach, reconsidering Canadian jurisprudence as it bears directly upon ethnicity-based Métis resource rights, portrays the outcome of R. v. Powley in a positive light, as it was the earliest case to define Métis peoples as culturally distinctive (rights-worthy) people. Past rulings had merely established Métis rights via Aboriginal/First Nations blood quantum or lifeways. To the contrary, in his review of R v. Powley, Jeremy Patzer argues that the case rendered Métis rights based upon a notion of “authentic” Indigeneity: the perception of Métis populations as culturally static anachronisms.

The book’s final section, “Politics,” offers four essays, dealing with the history Métis of political organization, the forging of Métis-specific structures of governance in Saskatchewan, and the employment of “interest group” theoretical strategies. Drawing upon the work of Joe Sawchuck, Kelly Saunders suggests that Métis populations have always perceived their nations as sovereign, self-governing institutions, and Siomonn P. Pulla—also drawing upon Sawchuk— examines Métis organizational developments within the contexts of Métis struggles for self-determination and Canadian representations of Aboriginality. Janique Dubois, diversifying the section, elaborates upon the manner in which Saskatchewan Métis have reached a stage of manifest self-governance. Co-editor Christopher Adams, in his closing chapter, examines the methods used by contemporary Métis nations to deal with provincial leaders. Basing his analysis upon interviews with heads of Métis nations and Métis organizations across Canada, Adams uses an “interest group” theoretical approach to undertake his exploration of Métis political/governing structures. While making apparent his recognition that the Métis populations seek to achieve self-governance, Adams comes to the contentious conclusion that they remain—at this stage—interest groups, ultimately implying that, while real, the intricacy of Métis identity in Canada makes it difficult to define.

Winner of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA)’s Best Subsequent Book Prize, Christopher Andersen’s 2014 book, “Métis” in Canada: Race, Recognition, and the Struggle for Indigenous Peoplehood, explores—in a similar vein to the essays included in Adams, Dahl, and Peach’s salient collection—the pertinent issues relating to the politics of Métis identity in Canada. While the Canadian constitution defines Métis as an Aboriginal people along with First Nations and Inuit peoples, according to Andersen the term has been misrecognized and, consequently, misused. Adeptly tracing the history of the word’s sociopolitical employment, Andersen argues that “Métis” has evolved to become a synonym for “mixed,” and thereby used as a tool of racialization, marginalization, and dismissal. Genetic blending is inherent to all peoples—including First Nations and Inuit populations—and other Indigenous peoples certainly emerged concurrently with the Métis populations. Reducing Métis peoples to “hybrids,” Andersen asserts, is therefore a disservice to all Indigenous Canadians. Conceptualizations of “Métis” founded upon discourses of hybridity, the author suggests, necessarily rely upon racist notions of Indigeneity entrenched in the Indian Act—understandings which have served to devalue and displace Aboriginal peoples. To his credit, Andersen supports his argument by evaluating the legal sites that have instrumentally operated in the service of misrepresentation, including the Supreme Court of Canada and National Household Survey (previously referred to as the Canadian Census).

Andersen—like the contributors to Métis in Canada—is attentive to the effect of R. v. Powley on societal understandings of what it actually means to be Métis. Asserting that “the category ‘Métis” should not be reserved for mixed-lineage individuals displaced by unjust legal frameworks, Andersen suggests that Indigeneity must necessarily be reconceived “in terms of peoplehood”—a historically rooted, distinctive, and relational “political community.” Although many Métis people yet identify on the basis of being “mixed,” Andersen is adamant in his well-founded argument. The book, although polemical, works to refute marginalizing stereotypes of Aboriginal peoples and to present proactive revaluations of historic legal failures. Taken together, the texts under review shed new light on the intricacies surrounding not only intracommunity conceptions of Métis identity in Canada, but also longstanding, often problematic constructions of mixed-lineage and, by extension, Indigenous identities in alterity.


This review “Constructing Métis Identity in Canada” originally appeared in Queer Frontiers. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 224 (Spring 2015): 103-105.

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