In the last decade or so, it has become a fairly accepted practice in Indigenous Studies circles for scholars presenting on Indigenous issues to begin their talks with some form of acknowledgment of the Indigenous peoples upon whose territories they are presenting. In western Canada, home of several so-called “numbered treaties”, scholars often go further to more specifically acknowledge the treaty territory upon which they present: “I’d like to acknowledge our presence on Treaty 4 territory…” or even the historical names of the peoples on those territories. Scholars have also begun to acknowledge their presence on treaty territories in their book manuscripts and articles. Others – among them graduate students – have added treaty acknowledgments to the signature lines of their emails, some taking the time to find the proper Indigenous terms for the territory. In certain cases, universities have even begun to acknowledge this presence during their convocation ceremonies.
All of this is welcome news. It is relational. It is respectful. And it goes without saying that it is long overdue. Unfortunately – at least in western Canada – one of the unintended effects of acknowledging only the treaties has been to, in the words of sociologist Löic Wacquant, “reify ethnoracial struggles of the past”. How do we unpack this phrase? Wacquant uses it to refer the phenomenon by which we take for granted the categories we use to make sense of the world. This makes a lot of sense at one level, since categories are often fundamental to our ability to make any sense of the social world. They profoundly structure our ability to think and talk with others on any given issue. In taking for granted the categories we do, however, Wacquant argues that we naturalize the historically rooted relations of power that produced them. In short, the language we use today “reifies” the hierarchies and inequalities that shaped those histories.
What does this have to do with treaties? As many students of Canadian history know, Canada attempted to secure its lawful title to Indigenous territories in what is now western Canada through the negotiation of a series of numbered treaties. The extent to which these treaties were actually negotiated as opposed to unilaterally imposed, and the extent to which a “meeting of the minds” about what they were actually supposed to do occurred, is hotly contested. Nonetheless, the idea of the treaties themselves and the relationships they were supposed to have set out has become a powerful symbolic stake in many contemporary negotiations between First Nations and the rest of Canada. Scholars, students, certain segments of the public and even universities have begun to reintroduce a “treaty vocabulary”. This is a good thing and it should be seen as such. The way we talk about things publicly has a powerful effect on the legitimacy they come to hold. In other words, how we talk about things holds the power to actually conjure them into existence. This is how “reification” works, for good and for ill. And in this case, it’s good because it re-concretizes something – treaties and their relationships – that far too often have been viewed as nebulous or far-fetched.
However, while many of us are aware of the historical treaty process, far fewer are aware of the options Métis were given to “surrender” their Aboriginal title. Certainly, it is possible to envision the Manitoba Act as a form of treaty, since it involved its own forms of negotiation between Métis representatives and Ottawa. Likewise, various historians have noted instances in which Métis individuals and families signed into treaty with their “First Nations” relatives. Nonetheless, as historical geographer Frank Tough has explained, most Métis were forced to make use of the “scrip system”, a system of land alienation that involved individualized coupons, worth $240 or 240 acres. The scrip system had little of the protections afforded to treaties, like non-saleability to non-Crown entities, collective ownership or on-going annuities. To greatly simplify a complex story, what Tough has termed “scrip speculators” received much of the eventual wealth generated by the scrip system. In comparison, only a small portion of Métis ended up receiving any land. Métis were left destitute. More importantly, Canada regarded their formal relationship with the Métis as complete, a position that has remained largely unchanged to this day.
The larger point to take away from this, conceptually, is to understand the acknowledgment of treaty relationships with so-called “Indians”, and the largely ad-hoc creation of a “scrip system” with “Halfbreeds”, as historical forms of ethnoracial struggle in the terms posed by Wacquant, above. Treaties are on going. Scrip was not. One effect of these historical government policies is that Métis have largely been denied a formal relationship with the federal government. Even despite the recent spate of court victories, we are not recognized in the manner First Nations are. This lack of recognition extends far beyond court decisions, however; to give several random examples, the National Household Survey (which replaced the long form census) currently cannot differentiate between “racialized” and “national” Métis self-identifications. Likewise, the massive 5,000 page Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples accorded only a single chapter in one volume to Métis histories, “perspectives and realities”, in comparison to the thousands of pages dedicated to First Nation and Inuit issues. More academically, Métis specific issues receive a pittance of the Tri-Council funding – both SSHRC and CIHR – dedicated to “Aboriginal” issues – First Nations and Inuit projects receive the lion’s share. This First Nations and Inuit focus is also reflected in publications, where they also predominate the Canadian scholarly field. Even the British Museum in London, with its comparatively large collection of northern Plains artifacts, has completed erased the Métis from its map of the mid-nineteenth century northern Plains.
None of this is to blame anyone for intentionally attempting to marginalize Métis histories, issues or concerns. Nonetheless, speaking again in terms of Wacquant’s “ethnoracial struggles of the past”, this is the effect of these decisions. Every book or article written on northern Plains history, for example, that doesn’t include the Métis, is to marginalize our Indigeneity. Every acknowledgement of “Metisness” in terms of a racial category (i.e. Métis as “mixed”) delegitimizes our peoplehood. And – the point of this post – every acknowledgment of your presence on treaty territory without an accompanying acknowledgment of the historical and contemporary Métis presence, does the same. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you mean to disrespect the Métis peoples or our histories. The effect of acknowledging your presence on treaty territories or even on “the territories of the Cree” or “the territories of the Ojibway” without also acknowledging the Métis presence, has the very same effect. And it perpetuates the marginalization that began with Canada’s refusal to acknowledge our Indigeneity in the same manner as they did that of First Nations.