From church to ceremony: Métis returning to tradition

Métis scholar Chantal Fiola says colonization had a huge impact on Métis spirituality, but many are returning to Indigenous ceremonies.
Métis scholar Chantal Fiola wrote Rekindling the Fire: Métis Ancestry and Anishinaabe Spirituality which investigates Métis ancestry, Anishinaabe spirituality, and the impacts of colonization. (UW)

Originally published on April 28, 2019.

Chantal Fiola grew up attending Catholic church, but as she got older she started wondering when and why her Métis ancestors stopped attending Indigenous ceremonies.

Fiola was raised Roman Catholic. A Catholic upbringing is "a pretty common experience among Métis" in Manitoba, said Fiola who is Red River Métis and Anishinaabe and a professor at the University of Winnipeg.

"I was very heavily involved in the church; first communion, reconciliation, confirmation. I sang in the choir. I was an altar girl, everything," she explained.

I knew that ceremonies held the answers to the questions that I had.- Chantal Fiola

When Fiola was a teenager she realized she was two-spirit and she stopped going to church because she no longer felt welcome. This started a journey of spiritual exploration for Fiola — from church services to Indigenous ceremonies.

Her journey led her to the University of Toronto where she took Native Studies. 

"I had a prof who was Métis. She's actually the one that brought me to my first ceremonies," Fiola recalled. "And really from that moment, I was hooked."

"I knew that ceremonies held the answers to the questions that I had."

Fiola was compelled to explore these questions further and she did so as a doctoral student in Indigenous studies at Trent University. In her PhD, Fiola researched the relationships that Métis people have to spirituality.

During her research, Fiola spent hours poring over archives. She read journals from the first Catholic priests who interacted with the Métis in Manitoba in the early 1800s.

"There are instances in their writing where they say things like, 'these Métis people call themselves Catholic. And it's true. They come to mass. But the following weekend they'll practice 'La Grande Medicine,' which is how they referred to the Midewiwin Lodge." The Midewiwin ceremony, or the Grand Medicine Society, is a spiritual practice among the Anishinabeg.

"I quickly learned that there's this stereotype [...] that Métis people go to church and First Nations people go to ceremonies," Fiola said.

The combined spiritual practice of Midewiwin and Catholicism changed after the 1885 Métis Resistance, when the Métis were driven from Manitoba, explained Fiola.

Secret Indigenous Ceremonies

When the colonial government banned Indigenous ceremonies across the country, Indigenous peoples feared punishment from Indian Agents and church officials. The Midewiwin, like many Indigenous ceremonies, went underground and was practiced in secret.

"The kind of persecution and oppression that Métis folks are experiencing during these forgotten years is so great that it wasn't uncommon for some of us to deny our Indigeneity."

It wasn't until the 1960s, when the Red Power movement was on the rise, that Métis people began openly practising ceremonies again, said Fiola.

Today, Métis people increasingly find themselves somewhere on the continuum between attending church and attending Indigenous ceremonies. And many Métis attend both, explained Fiola.

Fiola's research is published in her book Rekindling the Sacred Fire: Métis Ancestry and Anishinaabe Spirituality. It was published in 2015 by University of Manitoba Press.