'How would you conceive of Métis identity?': Experts doubt population with historic Métis ties in census

Megan Claud only found out about her Métis roots a few years ago. "My great-grandma, she hid it, like completely, from everyone, up until she was on her deathbed and started speaking Cree," Claud said.

Census says 114,370 people self-identify as Métis in Alberta; Métis Nation says far fewer have historic ties

Supreme Court victories around Métis rights have influenced a rise in self-identifying Indigenous peoples, say experts. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Megan Claud only found out about her Métis roots a few years ago. 

"My great-grandma, she hid it, like completely, from everyone, up until she was on her deathbed and started speaking Cree," Claud said.

The 20-year-old Edmonton woman, who registered with the Métis Nation of Alberta and later worked for the organization, said that she's noticed more and more people are curious about their Indigenous heritage.

"There's less of a stigma" compared to when her great-grandma was young, she said. "I think people are embracing it."

More people self-identify as Métis

The results of the 2016 national census released this week corroborate Claud's hypothesis.

Nearly 1.7 million people self-identified as Indigenous, up 42.5 per cent from a decade ago.

Among First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities, Métis experienced the largest increase. More than 587,000 people checked that box on the census, a jump of 51.2 per cent over the past 10 years. 

In Alberta alone, there are 114,370 people who self-identify as Métis, according to the census data. 

Audrey Poitras, the president of the Métis Nation of Alberta, said that more attention to Indigenous rights and talk of reconciliation encourages people to take pride in their Indigenous heritage.

"They are finally seeing some recognition for who they are as people," she said.

Métis Nation of Alberta president Audrey Poitras says that people are embracing their ancestral ties to the Métis Nation. (CBC News)

Poitras said she has noticed an uptick in people wanting to register with the organization after precedent-setting decisions about Métis rights. 

Defining Métis

There is controversy over who qualifies as Métis — and who doesn't. 

University of Alberta professor Chris Andersen, dean of the faculty of Native studies, said he's not surprised by the census findings pertaining to the Métis population since Métis is seen as synonymous with being of First Nations ancestry on one side and European ancestry on the other. 

Andersen said that being Métis is about more than just that. It's about having ties to the historic Métis Nation. 

"If that is the case, then the question that needs to be asked is, 'Why do people self-identify as Métis when they don't have Métis parents or grandparents?' " Andersen said. 

"How would you conceive of Métis identity if you removed the idea that mixed-ness — mixed ancestry, or mixed blood, or what have you — was an essential feature of it?"

Andersen said it comes down to ancestral ties to the buffalo-hunting people and the fur-trading economy of the historic Métis Nation of the 1800s.

There is also a traditional territorial association with Red River, Man. While not all Métis people are from there, it's where Louis Riel took on a leadership role in fighting for the already-established Métis settlements after Confederation. 

Louis Riel stepped forward as a leader of the Red River Rebellion in 1869-70.

Analyzing ancestry 

Up until 2006, Poitras said that people could register with the Métis Nation as long as someone vouched for them.

Now, a genealogist works with them to confirm the location of their historic Métis Nation, with a territorial centre of sorts in Red River, Man.

Since 2006, the Métis Nation has registered approximately 36,000 people. In partnership with the University of Alberta, the organization studies the population in the province.

Their research suggests there are about 27,000 more Métis who have not registered, bringing the total number of Métis in Alberta to around 63,000. 

Poitras said that not everyone interested in registering has ancestral ties to the historic Métis Nation. 

"Sometimes there's people who come through and say, 'I believe I am Metis.' And that's the first step — identifying yourself if you believe you are Metis," Poitras said, adding that the Métis Nation can't always find a link.

"Those people then generally realize — because they've had our genealogist work with them — they realize who they really are and they're proud of their ancestry, whether it's Metis or not."