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  • Saint-Laurent, Manitoba: Evolving Métis Identities, 1850-1914
  • Gerhard J. Ens
Saint-Laurent, Manitoba: Evolving Métis Identities, 1850-1914. Nicole Stonge. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 2004. Pp. 138 , illus, b&w, $14.95

The study of Metis history has, since the 1980s, focused more on the diversity of experience and instrumental definitions of ethnicity than essentialist or biological categories. Even this recent scholarship, however, in documenting Metis communities very different from that of Red River, has left intact the view of the Red River Metis as a relatively homogenous population of buffalo hunters and small-scale horticulturalists. This new study by Nicole St-Onge goes further and ques- tions the very concept of 'Red River Metis,' arguing that Red River itself was a mixture of heterogeneous Metis communities and identities. This observation alone makes this slim book a worthwhile addition to Metis scholarship.

St-Onge's focus is the community and parish of St-Laurent, MB, located on the eastern shore of Lake Manitoba on the periphery of the Red River Settlement. She argues that St Laurent, although settled initially by Metis from Red River and the Northwest, had a more diverse economy than many other communities on the Red and Assiniboine rivers. This economy consisted of salt making, fishing, hunting and gathering, trapping, and trading, and resembled more a 'Saulteaux' way of life than that of the more settled Metis parishes along the Red River (here St-Onge is herself guilty of homogenizing the other Red River parishes). St-Onge argues that in the decades after the 1870s, adaptations to immigration, new economic pursuits, and new attitudes to metissage propelled an increasing number of Metis families to identify with either [End Page 155] the dominant white society or Indian treaty populations. In this process, ethnicity became tied to class divisions, and Metis was seen increasingly as a term for the marginal or destitute subclass in the district. Metis became a derogatory term which was rejected by the more prosperous St Laurent residents.

St-Onge ably documents the increasing negative perception of the Metis with reference to Oblate missionary correspondence and their immigration schemes, but has more difficulty showing that these perceptions were internalized by the Metis themselves. The problem, acknowledged by St-Onge, is the paucity of evidence relating to the self-perception of the Metis in the St Laurent district prior to 1914. St-Onge tries to make up for this shortage of documentary evidence by using census data on occupations to show how the economic pursuits that had previously defined a Metis way of life were expanded to increasingly favour mixed farming and cattle ranching (presumably 'white' pursuits). To her surprise, however, she found the 1881 census did not indicate this trend, as the vast majority of St Laurent residents identified themselves as hunters. St-Onge tries to downplay this apparent contradiction by pointing out the reasons why census takers might misidentify their subjects. She may be correct in her diagnosis, but in other parts of her analysis she accepts census data at face value, assuming them to be correct.

More curious still is the fact that St-Onge more or less ignores census data that point to the continued self-identification as Metis. In the 1901 census, the last to use 'Half Breed' or 'Breed' as a category of 'Racial or Tribal Origin,' 623 of the 769 inhabitants of the St Laurent district identified themselves as 'Breeds.' This finding hardly supports the contention that the Metis of St Laurent were merging either with the white dominant society or with the northern treaty populations. Since no subsequent census had any 'Metis' designator, this is the last quantitative measure of her thesis.

In fact, the main support for her larger argument that by 1914 Metis had become a class designation and ceased to be a nation (96), are interviews collected in the 1980s in which some respondents with Native ancestry from St Laurent 'vehemently denied' being Metis and claimed to be French Canadian. As interesting as this interview material is, it hardly makes St-Onge's case for the period prior to 1914. In short, the book presents a brief but useful portrait...


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