How this woman reconnected with her Métis ancestry, and the land they live on

Jenna Vandal always knew she was Métis, but her family’s history was hidden from her. After years of hard work and dedication, she has reconnected with her heritage and the land, and found that the past contains a blueprint for reconciliation.
It wasn't until university that Jenna Vandal, above, began exploring her Métis heritage in a deeper way. (Kim Kaschor/CBC)

On a walk through Assiniboine Forest, it's easy to forget that you're still within the perimeter of the largest city in central Canada. That's precisely why Jenna Vandal heads there each day: to connect with the land and renew her pledge to protect it.

"It's important that we have more urban forests for our people, especially our Indigenous people who don't really have access to go travel for hours to find large patches of undisturbed forests or prairie," said Vandal.

At 35 years of age, Vandal identifies as Métis. Although she spent most of her life with little knowledge of her Indigenous ancestry, there were clues — including a photo that hung in her father's office. It's a well-known image of 12 Métis prisoners taken after the Battle of Batoche in 1885, which was the last major battle of the North-West Rebellion. Two of those prisoners were Vandals.

These are 12 Métis prisoners, following the 1885 Battle of Batoche, two of which were Vandals. The seventh and eighth prisoners from the left are Jenna’s ancestors, Pierre and Baptiste Vandal. (Submitted by Jenna Vandal)

Later in life, when Vandal started looking into her ancestry further, she learned that her connection to the rebellion — also known as the resistance — was greater still. 

"I found out that 11 of my Vandal ancestors were actually part of this battle and actually went out on the land and put their bodies on the line and fought to protect the land and their way of life so their families and their cultures could flourish," she said.

Vandal says the stories of her ancestors amplify her connection to the land, which is a source of healing emotionally, spiritually and physically. 

"One of the things I love about being on the land is that when you move through a forest, it's like your body remembers all these ancient ways we used to move every day," she said.

"You have to balance a lot more. Step over logs. You have to bend over trees. Be careful what you're stepping on. If there's rocks, if there's roots, if there's bugs. And it's a really beautiful way to be moving again rather than just walking on cement sidewalks all the time." 

Plants are part of understanding identity

Amidst the aspen-oak vegetation in Assiniboine Forest, Vandal finds her balance tromping through the last of the winter's snow. The sounds of sirens ring out in the distance as she searches for native plants; the busy streets of Winnipeg disappear as she focuses on this palpable connection to the past.

Goldenrod is a very common plant in Manitoba. (Kim Kaschor/CBC)

She points to a patch of prairie with an abundance of goldenrod poking up through the snow, a plant that is ubiquitous in Manitoba. In her research, Vandal has learned that all parts of the plant are edible. 

There are rose bushes nearby as well, a good source of vitamin C if you eat their fruit, the rose hip. But Vandal warns that you only want to eat its outside skin.

"I had an elder call the inside 'itchy arse'. There are sharp seeds inside and it really hurts coming out later on. So stay away from the inside of those," she said. 

The identification of plants is now part of Vandal's journey of self-discovery, but she recognized a connection to the land at a young age. 

"I have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, so I've never really gotten along well with my peers growing up," she said.

"It was difficult back then. Today I see it as a gift because it sent me to the forest. It sent me to a place of quietness where I could play in the mud and watch the insects and watch the animals and learn how to be in that regard and learn how to be quiet and observant and respectful."

While Vandal always felt a connection to the land, it wasn't until she took a Native Studies course at the University of Manitoba that she learned that being Métis went beyond how she was raised — which was primarily as a French-speaking Catholic. 

"It's a lot more broad and beautiful than just that… the roots to being Métis go back a lot deeper than when Catholicism came to Canada. It goes back to a time when there was no Catholic influence and it was just the law of the land and kinship laws," she said. 

Vandal explored this new facet of her Métis identity alongside other Métis and First Nation students, some of whom grew up with their First Nation cultures and others who did not. She said it was a time to reconnect with these traditions and that she always felt welcome.

"They took me with them to the lodges and they would speak to me about it. And it was a really beautiful time in my life to explore that way of being. I never felt any tension from any of my First Nation friends when I claimed that as a part of myself because I never said I was First Nation or I was Ojibwe. I always knew I was Métis," she said.

Proving Indigenous heritage a challenge

Vandal says the full extent of her history was hidden from her as a child. Her grandparents never spoke of their Indigeneity for fear of persecution.

"A lot of us weren't raised in our Indigenous cultures. A lot of it was shamed out of us. A lot of us are Sixties Scoop survivors who were given to white families and raised as white. So it's a lot harder to reconnect. And that certainly doesn't mean you're not Indigenous. You definitely are. But you need to find your community." 

Exploring Indigenous heritage can be challenging, especially for those who were raised outside of an Indigenous culture. In her own research through the Centre Du Patrimoine, which specializes in the genealogy of French-Canadians and the Métis of Western Canada, Vandal was able to track many of her ancestors through the Vandal name  and other Métis surnames such as Carriere, Frobisher, Jobin, and McMillan.

More research revealed that Vandal descends from Ojibwe, Cree, Dene and Mohawk women who were all born before the treaties. Though she knows the years they were born, pinpointing their exact birthplace is difficult. "The communities back then were pretty fluid," Vandal said, "and First Nations still lived by their seasonal rounds, moving with the animals and resources, so it's hard overall to name a static community like we do nowadays with reserves".

Vandal encourages others to cultivate community by protecting the land, a route she took in 2017 when she organized a blockade on a 19-hectare parcel of partly wooded land along the edge of Winnipeg's Fort Garry neighbourhood.

The wetlands she sought to protect were associated with nearby Rooster Town, a Métis settlement dismantled by the City of Winnipeg in the 1950s. The blockade held for several months.

"I went out by myself and within the next few days there were hundreds of people with me — a lot of First Nations people, Métis, white people, community groups bringing food, staying in tents overnight," she recalled.

"And it was a really beautiful way to find family and to find friends and to join that community and give a part of yourself to the community. And you definitely know there's a lot of land protecting that still needs to be done throughout Canada and throughout the world."

Vandal says these acts of stewardship remind her of the Iron Alliance, a union built on the prairies among several Indigenous nations, including Métis.

"Winnipeg was the center of it. And, you know, we were powerful. We supported each other. We were a military alliance. We were a ceremonial alliance, an economic alliance. We traded together. We controlled the horse trade. We controlled the gun trade. And more important than that is we lived peacefully together," she said, adding that this kind of alliance is still possible among Indigenous peoples today. 

For Vandal, learning about the history of her ancestors and how they lived in community with others is an important part of how she identifies as a Métis woman. The forest is her guide.

"Another beautiful thing about being out on the land and speaking to elders and reading books is you think you know it all sometimes, but you're humbled a lot of the time and you realize there's a heck of a lot more to learn. And it kind of it snowballs into this beautiful path. A lot of people call it following the Red Road. And it's really what has kept me alive all these years and has made me have good relations with my friends and my family."

Written and produced by Kim Kaschor.