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The American Indian Quarterly 25.1 (2001) 73-92

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Negotiating an Identity:
Métis Political Organizations, the Canadian Government, and Competing Concepts of Aboriginality

Joe Sawchuk

This essay describes how the contemporary Métis of Canada have attempted to have their collective identities recognized by the Canadian government and its legal system, and the way the Canadian government has both resisted and accommodated this claim. Struggles for self-definition by aboriginal minorities against an encompassing nation-state are fraught with irony. The very process of declaring oneself to be "Métis" (or "Indian" or "Inuit") means taking on aspects of identity and otherness that have been defined by the dominant society. Such irony has been exacerbated by academics, who have labeled many of the struggles by contemporary aboriginal peoples to reformulate national cultures and communities as "invention." This postcolonial argument suggests that nations, ethnicities, and aboriginal identities are "imagined"; that cultural identities are myths; and that attempts to isolate cultures are illusory (Dirlik 2). What is disturbing about this trend is the apparent equation of invention with a lack of authenticity - the suggestion that these processes of self-identification are somehow bogus simply because an inconsistency between past practices and present interpretations of the past can be demonstrated. Much of this kind of analysis ignores the more interesting question of why or "against what" these definitions develop (Thomas 216).

Furthermore, not all expressions of ethnicity are self-defined. In its relationships with Native peoples, the nation-state often creates or defines aboriginal identities for its own use. These necessarily distort, and may have little to do with peoples' understanding or perceptions of themselves. An example is Section 35(2) of Canada's Constitution Act of 1982, which states: "In this Act, 'Aboriginal peoples of Canada' includes the Indian, Inuit, and Métis peoples of Canada." Here the construct "Indian" is an obvious fabrication, conflating many disparate cultures and political and linguistic groups into one overall entity. Yet, Native people in Canada have to some extent taken on this identity for themselves, although the recent trend of referring to Canada's Indian population as "First Nations" (which at least suggests the plurality of identities), [End Page 73] shows that even the Canadian government realizes the absurdity of amalgamating so many groups into one. The Métis organizations, after intensive lobbying to have the category of "Métis" recognized in the constitution, now find themselves in the same position as that of Indians. That is, they now must live with the consequences of an overarching classification, one that is no more appropriate for them than it is for "Indians." The Métis have many local, regional, and cultural variations which militate against their being considered a unified whole. To date there has been little government recognition of this disparity.

As of 1991 the segment of the population who self-identified as Métis was estimated at 139,000 (RCAP: 19). Regionally, most Métis are concentrated in the prairie provinces, with an estimated population of 101,000. About 24,000 live in Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime Provinces, and 14,000 in British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, and the Yukon. The majority live in urban areas (65 percent) while the remainder live in rural areas (32 percent) and on reserves (approximately 3 percent). But these figures, particularly those identifying urban dwellers, are problematic, since they do not distinguish between the "Métis Nation" and groups in other parts of Canada that have recently adopted the name "Métis." The traditional origins of the Métis have usually been characterized by Canadian historians as centering around the Red River colony during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries - that is, separate groups of French, Scottish, and English mixed-blood populations that evolved from marriages between European fur traders and aboriginal women, and the Red River basin of southern Manitoba (Stanley; Giraud; and Morton). Much of this familiar analysis concerns the Riel resistance movements of 1869-70 and 1885. But many other Métis groups - with distinct characteristics and separate local...


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