Marginalizing Métis histories through Treaty Territory Acknowledgment

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.

About BigMmusings

Chris Andersen, Ph.D., Associate Dean-Research, Associate Professor, Faculty of Native Studies University of Alberta
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19 Responses to Marginalizing Métis histories through Treaty Territory Acknowledgment

  1. Cathy says:

    I remember presenting at a conference out west when I first started my work at NAHO. I was speaking to you and while I acknowledged the territory I was on I also indicated to the Metis youth that it was indeed Metis land too. Perhaps I mis phrased my intentions but I must say that my comments were not received well at all. As a matter of fact I was reminded of my lack of protocol immediately after I left the mic.

  2. Cathy says:

    Speaking to youth. Sorry

    • BigMmusings says:

      hi Cathy…*I* said that Metis shouldn’t be acknowledged?

      • Cathy says:

        Oh I’m sorry. Was multi tasking when I read this. I will re read. Now I feel like a duffis can I delete my posts

      • Cathy says:

        Btw it was a typo where “you” should have read youth. No you were not there. Someone else mentioned to me that I had made an error in indicating that while it was traditional territory of a specific First Nation but also mentioning that Metis should be acknowledged as well. I personally think that it is ok to acknowledge that a specific territory is also part of the Metis homeland. I think that from a rights based perspective that it is imperative that that declaration be made whenever possible

  3. Richard says:

    The whole issue will soon be solved either by marriage or someone will count the Metis, there are an estimated 1.7 million Metis in Kanata

    • BigMmusings says:

      Hi Richard. Who estimates 1.7 million? Usually the entire Aboriginal population is estimated at 1.7 million (or so). The Metis “identity” population is roughly 400,000. The Metis “ancestry” population is only slightly higher.

  4. Yvonne Richer says:

    It’s late and I’d have to read this article again to make sure I understand it correctly. First of all, I love the photo. That is what got my attention at first. My cousins, the Arcand boys. Secondly, as I read these estimates on Metis population, I will write what my first thoughts were. When I think of Metis people, I think of those of us in the West, that identify ourselves as such. When doing my genealogy research on my family, I found that approximately 50% of Canadians are of mixed ancestry. (Not all from my family of course, lol.) I’ve always identified myself as Metis, therefore I have not taken Treaty, even if it is my birthright. (My gr-grandfather was Mistawasis.) Also, my father had given up his Treaty rights because back then you couldn’t work off reserve like you do now. It’s not that great having Treaty. So, I don’t see that as a settlement. My father would tell us to go to school and get education. That was the key for the Indian and Metis to get out of any oppression.(He’d say “legimation”. He couldn’t speak English well.) I think of that now as I speak with others about their thoughts on the Supreme Court ruling on Metis land claims. I know there are some that think that they may get “something”. Something like Treaty? Money? Settlement? Please, not something like Residential school money. If any settlement or agreement be made, give access to education for our children. (I know that in the Treaty agreement there is suppose to have that clause on free education, but do you know how many youths are on waiting lists on their reserves? So I’m sceptical on any kind of “settlement” that might ever be made.)
    I’m happy for any kind of acknowledgement regarding Metis peoples, because I grew up in a time when it was hard being “Michif”. I want my children to be proud of who they are and to hold their heads up high. After all, the soles of their feet are touching the souls of their ancestors. They’ve been here for hundreds of years.

  5. BigMmusings says:

    Nice to meet you, Yvonne! I’m a professor at the University of Alberta (in Native Studies). But I do get back to Saskatchewan from time to time. Are you on facebook?

  6. Bev Weber says:

    Such a small world really when it comes right down to it. As a former elected official with the Metis Nation of Alberta in the Southern Region, I am particularly aware of the protocol and have attended many events at which Treaty land designations have been recognized. I always felt a little “tinge” in my heart knowing as well that our peoples the Metis travelled and hunted and intermarried, and subsequently many chose the script allocation which as we are all aware was effective in removing a land base for our ancestors… We were the travellers, the entrepreneurs, the interpreters and I have found much respect for our culture among many First Nation’s Chiefs and elders who we count among our past and current relations. Why does a person always feel that the acknowledgement of one of the Aboriginal peoples of this country lessons the validity of the ancestral history of another? Because we are painfully aware how the colonialistic agenda of opening the West and policing the populations of Aboriginals to make way for settlers, divided us, and scattered the Metis although family ties and shared culture and identity have remained strong for some. For others, forced assimilation has taken its toll. I appreciate the challenges of Metis peoples for funding such as initiatives to preserve our language, michif, to be acknowledged in land use and stewardship of culturally significant hunting and burial areas, and we as Aboriginal peoples should unite our efforts and not continue to look at our differences, but rather our shared traditional practices and heritage. We would have a much stronger position against continued marginalization. At one event, graciously shared by an elder was the story of how during a time in our history, when drumming and pow wow and other First Nations ceremony was not allowed, he appreciated the Metis fiddle, and learned to play. Our peoples were united in common struggles to survive and maintain pride and identity. It will unfortunately take as many generations as it has taken for division and competition for limited funding to take its toll; for the mainstream population to develop an understanding, respect and acknowledgement of the First People’s of this country… Just my two cents.

    • Yvonne Richer says:

      Bravo Bev. Thank you for your two cents. It’s not that long ago that drumming and pow wow was not allowed. I remember learning to jig as a child and someone telling me not to move my upper body much, to keep it straight and just move my feet. In case someone from Indian affairs was looking by the window, they wouldn’t see me dancing.

  7. Pingback: Mixed Race Studies » Scholarly Perspectives on Mixed-Race » Marginalizing Métis histories through Treaty Territory Acknowledgment

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