Q&A: Who is Métis? Manitoba Métis Federation and Eastern Woodland Métis have quite different answers
'If they are able to use that word Métis then I think it calls into question our own nationhood,' says MMF
This article is a part of our series, 'Exploring Identity.' We're taking a closer look at issues surrounding identity in Inuit, First Nations and Métis communities.
It's a tale of two different peoples both claiming the same name — Métis. One is recognized as a distinct nation with its own culture, while the other is criticized for appropriating an identity.
CBC Indigenous sat down with Will Goodon, who is a spokesperson for the Métis National Council and the Manitoba Métis Federation, in Winnipeg and Mary Lou Parker, the grand chief of the Eastern Woodlands Métis Nation of Nova Scotia, in Yarmouth, N.S.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
WILL GOODON, Manitoba Métis Federation
Will Goodon grew up with his family in the Turtle Mountains in southwestern Manitoba. He is currently the minister of Housing and Property Management for the Manitoba Métis Federation and the elected representative on the MMF from the southwest region.
What does being Métis mean in 2019?
You know there's certain markers when it comes to being a nation, being a people, and some of those markers include your culture. There's a distinct music, dance or food, clothing, and language obviously a big thing. Michif language is a big part of who we are, even though people don't speak it every day. It's something that we hope to revive. But there's also the political actions that happened in the past, whether that was wars or whether that was signing agreements, constitutional agreements with Canada like the Manitoba Act.
Can you can you describe the difference between "big m" Métis and "small m" métis?
For me there is no big M and no little M. There's the Métis Nation, and the Métis Nation is something that was born and grew and developed in Western Canada, on the Prairies.
If being of mixed heritage doesn't make a person Métis, what does it make them?
I'm very careful to not tell people who they are. If there is someone in Nova Scotia with mixed ancestry, who is it for me to say who they are? I can say who I am and I can probably say that they're not us, which is where the whole disagreement comes in.
For the people who live out east, who don't have a connection to the nation, they try to use genealogy. They'll find one ancestor from 10 generations ago and they all connect to that one ancestor.
What criteria does the MMF use to define its membership?
There's three things. You have to self identify, which is the fairly easy part of it. You have to have a connection to the historic Métis Nation and you have to be accepted by the contemporary Métis Nation.
At what point would an applicant to the MMF get denied membership?
Well if you were unable to prove your connection to a historic Métis Nation, then that would be a reason to deny.
Have you met any of the people that would consider themselves Eastern Métis?
No. One thing that I've noticed is that they may have a community, but it seems to me that this is a virtual community. They talk to each other on Facebook… but they don't go out.... That's where their community exists… It's not a real community. They don't have these connections to their people.
They're not only hurting the Métis Nation by saying that they're us, but they're also hurting the people who live there, like the Mi'kmaq people. The [Mi'kmaq] have expressed that this is their territory. This is Mi'kma'ki. They have been there forever. And if there was a mixed ancestry community that lived there and was there, they would have known about it.
They've only seen them in the last five to 10 years and that causes me to think that there's something not quite real here, that there's something quite fake about the whole thing.
Do you see the rise of groups like the eastern Métis, being problematic for Métis people across Canada?
Absolutely. If they are able to use that word Métis then I think it calls into question our own nationhood, our own peoplehood. But it doesn't just hurt the Métis Nation, even though they're using our words, it hurts the Indigenous Peoples who live on those lands as well.
The Mi'kmaq people have reached out to us. The Algonquin people in Ontario have reached out to us to talk about working together on this issue.
There's lots of interest in having protocol agreements with the Métis Nation, to have them so that there's a clear idea of who we are and who they are. And hopefully the other government jurisdictions -- the federal, provincial, municipal jurisdictions -- they will listen to the Indigenous People who are recognized.
Who do you think should decide who is Métis?
One Métis citizen doesn't decide who's Métis. We haven't talked about the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. There's the clause in there that talks about self-determination. Self-determination is not a right held by an individual either, though. Self-determination is a right held by the people at large, by the nation. Whether it's the Cree nation, whether that's the Navajo Nation, whether it's the Métis Nation. That's who owns that right of self-determination. So that right of self-determination for the Métis Nation — it's up to us to decide who's Métis, who is a Métis Nation citizen. It's not up to an individual.
MARY LOU PARKER, Grand Chief, Eastern Woodlands Métis Nation of Nova Scotia
Mary Lou Parker is 83 and grew up in Yarmouth, N.S.. Last year in a Canadian Press article, she said the Eastern Woodlands Métis Nation of Nova Scotia had 30,000 members. This year, she says there are 70,000 members, although she doesn't have any records to back this claim.
What does being Métis feel like to you?
I've never felt any other way. I've been educated on my own because we didn't know anything about being Métis then. I do remember my father used to get us to get an old pot and do the war dance.
What do you want people to understand about your organization?
To understand that we are different from the norm, yet we are the same. We're only different because of our culture. We can't practise our culture because we've been put into the White Man's culture. They would never let us practise our culture.
What would your goal be for your membership? What do you want to achieve as grand chief?
I want recognition for my people.
From the government. We all own our own houses. We pay our own taxes. I want education. Education for our people is the most important thing in this world.
Can you tell me briefly how your group began. Why is it that you organized?
Because we felt left out of everything… Why weren't they recognizing Métis people — the mixtured people on this continent — the same as the other coast? As you know, Métis comes from the word métis. French people, or European people not just French, were mixing and intermarrying with First Nations when they crossed the Bering Strait, so métis being a mixture, we just put it down to Métis.
You started your group in the 70's, took a break, and started back up in the late 90's?
Yeah. I married an Indigenous man. He was [bi-racial]. His mother was Native and we just got to talking and [said] we should do something for ourselves as well. So we decided to form the Métis group — Eastern Woodland Métis Nation of Nova Scotia — which is exactly what we did and we had many, many people come to us.
Is the group recognized by the federal government?
The group is not recognized by the federal government. They only recognize the group that has Louis Riel's name in it.
Do you remember the decision making process in saying we're going to organize a group the second time?
There were six of us and we all got together and said look "if we're going to do this, let's do it right and form the thing." So we named my husband the Grand Chief, I was chief, Gilbert was the second chief and we just named all the way down. Since then my husband passed and they moved me up, they elected me up to grand chief.
Then we had other people wanting to start groups, so we told them yes.They were all members, but they had formed their own groups, their own chiefs, and they've got their own people. But this all comes in under our heading. So this is how we've accumulated over 70,000 members.
The second time around when we reopened our doors, I put an ad in the paper. "Do you want to know your Native heritage? And if you are a Native, apply here." And we went through. But they have to prove to us, all our members, they have to prove to us that they're Native. We don't go proving to them that they're Native.
What criteria does your organization use to define its membership?
You must prove to us that you have Native heritage from Nova Scotia from the Mi'kmaq people. We don't put the generations, as long as you've got a drop of Indian blood in you, you're Métis.
So they need to have documented proof of Mi'kmaq and European ancestry? Is there a cutoff point for how many generations back?
No. It's not fair. You are who you are.
At what point would you deny somebody membership to your organization?
Oh, if you go too far back, I mean… Actually I don't think we've ever denied anybody. I don't know how I'd go about answering that question.
What does membership in the group give your members?
It actually gives our members the feeling of knowing who they are. It gives them an identification card stating that they are Métis.
What is your community like?
We haven't had the opportunity to develop, to get a bunch of us together to develop a community. I'm only a simple woman, that's all I am. I don't know how to go about all this to develop a community.
So if the criteria to get into this organization is based around European and Mi'kmaw ancestry, why is it that you don't call yourself Mi'kmaq?
Because we're not true Mi'kmaq. We're not First Nations. We are a mixture and we're not all Europeans and don't forget, there's Canadians here. We're Canadian. We were here before the Europeans were.
With so many calling themselves Métis, no matter where they happen to be from, what do you think that Métis means now in 2019?
I find that there's a lot of people that are calling themselves Métis because they like the word… you have to belong to two cultures and I think the misuse of the word Métis is nationwide and it's too bad because if people have to understand the true meaning of Métis which is a person of mixed identity, not just two, could be three or four, but it's a person of mixed identity.
What message do you have for the Métis National Council?
Laugh your heart out. I'm here. I'm staying.
with files from Lenard Monkman and Nic Meloney