When I was seven years old, I listened as my father questioned my grandfather over the kitchen table about rumours he had heard growing up that hinted at “Indian blood” in our family. My grandfather, unmoved, rejected any such notion. He emphatically declared: he was not Métis, but rather was French, “through and through.”
After his passing in 1975, however, once-whispered family stories and oral histories emerged that contradicted my grandfather’s categorical assertion. It soon became apparent that he had indeed been Métis, a “French half-breed,” according to government records. As were his siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. He even spoke Michif (the Métis language). What drove him to reject his Métis heritage — thereby denying his descendants theirs, and forcing them to attempt to reclaim it? The answer, though not uncommon, is something most Canadians are unaware of, and even fewer have come to terms with.
My grandfather was born at the dawn of the 20th century, in 1900. Just 15 years earlier, in 1885, a small group of Métis held out for days against a vastly superior force of Canadian troops in what has come to be known as the Northwest Resistance. Although historians now generally agree the Métis were victims of government inaction and indifference, with legitimate grievances that deserved attention, the government of the day portrayed them as treasonous and dangerous. It was a characterization the public was eager to accept, meaning, for most Canadians, Métis were all uncritically painted with the same discriminatory brush.
The result was a Métis dark period that stretched well into the 20th Century. During that time, settler society conspired with colonialist governments to strip Métis of their dignity by denying them basic services such as sanitation, housing, education and employment. In order to survive, many Métis, like my grandfather, were forced into denying their heritage and hiding their customs so they could blend in with settler society.
“I have relatives who, despite the oral histories and irrefutable documentation, still refuse to accept the reality of Métis heritage.”
The Métis dark period was not the only time Canada has attempted to erase Indigenous identity. Through the enforcement of the Indian Act the Canadian government, for more than a century, has repeatedly claimed the right to unilaterally bestow — or deny — Indigenous identity on First Nations individuals. Until relatively recently the Indian Act was used to unilaterally revoke Indian Status from First Nations women, and by extension their descendants, simply because they had the temerity to marry non-Indigenous men. In another example, from the 1950s through to as recently as the 1980s, thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their families by government agencies to be adopted into settler society, the now infamous ’60s Scoop. Most grew up removed from their Indigenous communities, and were disconnected from their Indigenous cultures and heritage, some not even knowing they were Indigenous.
These are but some of the more egregious examples of actions undertaken by settler society that, for many, resulted in the erasure and destruction of their Indigenous culture and identity. In recent decades, generations of these Canadians have begun the often arduous task of trying to reconnect with their stolen heritage. Records, if they even exist, can be difficult to obtain, and family politics — exacerbated by societal attitudes conditioned by a century of government rhetoric — can open old wounds many would prefer left untouched. I have relatives who, despite the oral histories and irrefutable documentation, still refuse to accept the reality of Métis heritage. Add to that the long history of non-Indigenous Canadians appropriating Indigenous identities — think Grey Owl in the 1930s — and for many the issue of Indigenous identity has become a murky quagmire indeed.
Settler society and the oversimplification of identity
When I first learned of my grandfather’s Indigeneity, I was angry at him for hiding it. It was only later that I understood colonialist policies and societal discrimination had forced him to deny his culture, and that he was doing what he thought was best for his children. Shortly after, my father was killed in a car accident. Sadly, he died never knowing his heritage. As a result, much of my life has been a journey searching for my own. It is a journey my children should not have to endure.
For many, the path can wind on for a lifetime owing to the obstacles created by colonial practices. A few are fortunate enough to arrive at their truth. But simply discovering a First Nations ancestor in the distant branches of a family tree does not grant one the right to assert Indigeneity.
“Canadians need to stop accepting as valid the white-washed histories that ignore or deny colonial destruction of Indigenous cultures.”
Indigeneity is recognized through the web of relationships and reciprocal obligations arising from membership within a community. It is not something that can be validly claimed unilaterally. An Indigenous community must still accept the claim and grant membership. That is where people like Michelle Latimer and Joseph Boyden ran afoul: in making unrecognized claims, they actually harmed the very communities to which they desired membership. But criminalizing people who are grasping at murky Indigenous pasts in order to give meaning and identity to empty presents, as some have recently suggested, is not the answer. To do so would be to engage in the decidedly colonialist approach of applying rigid legal definitions to a nuanced and complex issue — something the Indian Act has already shown to be a flawed approach, and one unlikely to succeed in stopping future individuals from making similar claims.
Settler society has a notorious desire for oversimplified, neat and tidy answers to uncomfortable reconciliation questions, and the issue of reclaiming Indigenous identity is no exception. It is simpler and less messy to make Indigenous identity an “either/or” affair: either you are Indigenous, or you are not, without room for the complexities of Indigenous identity. Likewise, ignoring the consequences of Canada’s colonial past is simpler than acknowledging its role in creating the issue in the first place; it’s easier to hold accountable those directly impacted than to earnestly engage in what can be a very thorny problem. Given the role settler society historically had in erasing Indigenous identities, that is a particularly galling response. But it’s where the country is at.
By refusing to accept its responsibility to help address the issues faced by those trying to reclaim their culture and heritage, Canadian society only prolongs their loss. Canadians need to stop accepting as valid the white-washed histories that ignore or deny colonial destruction of Indigenous cultures, and recognize that moving forward will necessarily require them to first look back. Failing to do so will continue the cultural erasure shaped by formal government policies, affecting people like my grandfather and their families for generations. And that is the very antithesis of reconciliation.
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