Who is Métis? Future historians will have to be careful who they ask

Note to readers: I am writing about this topic as a non-Métis person. I am a settler living in unceded xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and səl̓ilwətaɁɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) territory. I have tried to center the work of Métis scholars in my research and link to many of their works here. 

This blog post was written for ARST 516: Management of Current Records, a required course for my Masters in Archival Studies at UBC. The assignment asked us to find a news item published this fall that reflected the key themes of our course, and critically reflect on it in relation to records management.

Introduction

For the past twenty years, Métis people have disputed Statistics Canada’s census counts of their population. This year was no exception, with debate breaking out as soon as the latest data was released. But why is this topic so contentious, and how does it relate to records management?

Statistics Canada’s data is used throughout the government to inform policy decisions. Archives Canada describes census returns as “an invaluable source of information”. If Statistics Canada’s data is compromised, the effects will be widespread.

The definition of Métis has material effects, from the Canadian literature community to land claims processes. Different groups advocate for competing definitions of Métis, and records management theory can help us understand why.

By taking a brief look at the missions of Statistics Canada, the Métis Nation, and the Métis Federation, we will see that each organization both relies on and generates different sets of records based on their organizational goals. This illustrates a fundamental idea of archival theory that forms the basis of tools such as Work Process Analysis.

To see how, let’s begin by asking: what does Métis mean?

Mixed Messages: Defining Métis

Métis is defined and documented in numerous ways. Here I will focus on three approaches from Statistics Canada, the Métis Nation, and the Métis Federation of Canada. I’ve chosen these three organizations because they are all national and receive regular media attention.

Statistics Canada generates its Métis population data through the national census every five years. This is done through Question 18, which reads, “Is this person an Aboriginal person, that is, First Nations (North American Indian), Métis or Inuk (Inuit)?” Métis identity is determined entirely based on whether someone responds “Yes, Métis” to this question.

Métis Government
Councillors of the Provisional Government of the Métis Nation, 1870, from Library and Archives Canada (public domain image).

The Métis Nation understands the Métis people as a collective group with a unique shared history. Its official definition of Métis reads as follows: “‘Métis’ means a person who self-identifies as Métis, is distinct from other Aboriginal peoples, is of historic Métis Nation Ancestry and who is accepted by the Métis Nation”. To register as a member of the Métis Nation, people must complete an application process based on these criteria.

This process requires applicants to submit extensive genealogical documentation, generally back to the 1800s. This is used to build a network of relationships between family and community members. Citizens of the Métis Nation can trace their ancestry to specific Métis communities living in the historic Métis Nation Homeland (including BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and the Northwest Territories).

The Métis Federation of Canada, on the other hand, emphasizes its commitment to the “unity of ALL Metis” across Canada – including people from outside the Métis Nation Homeland. It also has a membership application process, with broader criteria than the Métis Nation. Crucially, the Métis Federation does not require members to have an ancestor from the historic Métis Nation.

Applicants for Métis Federation membership must document that they have Aboriginal ancestry. However, this ancestor does not have to be Métis and may be First Nations or Inuit. This is a racial understanding of Métis identity, focused on problematic notions of ‘mixed’-ness, a point to which I will return.

Why It Matters

While the differences between these definitions may seem subtle, their impacts are dramatic.

The federal government has specific responsibilities to Métis people for services such as education, healthcare, and social services. Métis people also have relationships with and responsibilities to one another and to other Indigenous communities. Fulfilling these relationships relies on knowing who is involved in them.

Numerous authors have described how defining Métis in a racialized way, as the Métis Federation does, has had harmful repercussions. This is thoroughly addressed in Chris Andersen’s celebrated book “Métis”: Race, Recognition, and the Struggle for Indigenous Peoplehood. Andersen focuses on how misunderstanding Métis as a racial category is linked to systemic racism and anti-Indigeneity.

Joseph_Boyden_in_Festival_America
Canadian writer Joseph Boyden in September 2010 by Camille Gévauda (CC BY-SA 3.0). Boyden has periodically identified as Métis, however his claims to Indigeneity have come under close scrutiny and questioning over the past year.

Furthermore, there is a troubling trend of settlers self-identifying as Métis. Scholars suggest that this is the reason for the dramatic population increase that Statistics Canada has documented.

Darryl Leroux, Associate Professor at St. Mary’s University, has studied how this manifests in Québec. A narrative of Québec-as-Métis is being used to support Québécois nationalist narratives of oppression by British colonizers. This focus on the Québécois as an oppressed people derails conversations about racism and colonialism in Québec.

This “settler self-indigenization” undermines both the meaning of Indigeneity as well as efforts to disrupt ongoing colonialism. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang describe these behaviours as an “attempt to relieve the settler of feelings of guilt or responsibility without giving up land or power or privilege, without having to change much at all.”

Clearly, the repercussions of the definitions used by Statistics Canada and the Métis Federation are severe. So why do they persist?

The Impact of Organizational Mission on Records

The unique missions of Statistics Canada, the Métis Nation, and the Métis Federation affect how they define and document Métis identity. Each organization both relies on and generates different sets of records based on their organizational goals.

Statistics Canada aims to “serv[e] Canada with high-quality statistical information that matters”. Amongst all the information they must collect, a high-level count of the Métis population is sufficient for their purposes. A single census question suffices to obtain this data – even if its reliance on self-identification sows confusion.

The Métis Nation is dedicated to “secur[ing] a healthy space for the Métis Nation’s on-going existence within the Canadian federation”. The definition of a historical and contemporary Métis Nation is critical to their work. Their emphasis on historical documents highlighting relationships reflects this focus, even if it is onerous on applicants.

The Métis Federation of Canada “fight[s] for recognition of all Métis people”. In this work, an inclusive (some may say expansive) definition of Métis is critical. As a result, they emphasize simplicity and accessibility in their application process, even if it perpetuates racialization.

The connections between these organizations’ missions, their definitions of Métis, and the records they produce or rely upon is clear. Because these definitions are linked to the three organization’s missions, they are difficult to change. Questioning the ways they define and document what it means to be Métis would also challenge their core missions.

Future Implications

The field of records management requires us to examine current records. These records, if preserved, will affect the way our present will be understood in the future.

In relation to Métis identity, Statistics Canada, the Métis Nation, and the Métis Federation are all creating different records. The records they choose to create are not random – they relate directly to these organizations different missions.

Consider a seemingly simple statistic – a population count of Métis people from 2016. This number will differ significantly depending on where a future historian obtains their data. While many academics turn to Statistics Canada for this type of information, it should be abundantly clear that this census data must be treated with care.

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