From New Peoples to New Nations: Aspects of Métis History and Identity from the Eighteenth to Twenty-First Centuries by Gerhard J. Ens and Joe Sawchuk (review)
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Reviewed by
Gerhard J. Ens and Joe Sawchuk. From New Peoples to New Nations: Aspects of Métis History and Identity from the Eighteenth to Twenty-First Centuries. University of Toronto Press. xii, 672. $48.95

Métis communities and individuals, past and present, continue to significantly impact the shaping of Canadian histories and identities, not the least in regard to recent court cases and legislation in Manitoba and elsewhere. In From New Peoples to New Nations, the result of decades of extensive archival and oral history research, historian Gerhard J. Ens and anthropologist Joe Sawchuk examine the fluid ways in which Métis communities constructed and adapted their identities, based on perceptions by outsiders, as well self-perceptions.

Besides the meticulous archival research, a major strength of their work is its impressive temporal and geographic trajectory, encompassing Métis trading communities that emerged in the Great Lakes region during the latter part of the eighteenth century, the bison-hunting, fur-trading Métis of the Red River Settlement at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the struggles of the Métis of the western Canadian plains in the late 1800s, and the rise of Métis political organizations and the reemergence of Métis identities in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries across Canada. The linkage of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Métis histories to contemporary Métis political, economic, and cultural concerns in one book is especially important and useful, as all too often in Métis historiography, one is overemphasized at the expense of the other. The inclusion of Métis histories south of the Canadian/US border, often missing from older works in this field, contributes to a much more balanced understanding of the historic and ethnic interconnectedness of Métis Peoples in the Great Lakes and the Plains regions across the international border. [End Page 170]

Ens and Sawchuk argue against what they describe as a "primordialist" view of Métis ethnicity, which has commonly been adopted by most historians so far. This perspective sees aspects of kinship, race, descent, social customs, language, and religion as the principal components of Métis identities, largely unalterable by "rational interest" or "political calculation." In contrast, applying an "instrumentalist" and "social constructionist" perspective, Ens and Sawchuk closely link the rise of Métis ethnicity and Métis nationalism to specific situational and strategic conditions and considerations where concepts of ethnicity were malleable and could be manipulated by individuals, elites, and organizations within and outside of Métis communities. Thus, Ens and Sawchuk place economics and politics at the centre of the Métis ethnicities that emerged in different regions at different times.

The highly detailed maps and a broad range of historical photographs, many rarely published before, complement this graphically well-designed and accessibly written book. While of interest to the professional scholar, the book would also be suitable as a textbook in university-level Métis history courses and will no doubt stimulate debate in scholarly settings and beyond.

From New Peoples to New Nations is a welcome addition to an already rich literature on a wide range of aspects of Métis ethnicity, political history, and social and material culture, providing unique and innovative perspectives on Métis history.

Roland Bohr
Department of History, University of Winnipeg
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