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  • From New Peoples to New Nations: Aspects of Metis History and Identity from the Eighteenth to the Twenty-first Centuries by Gerhard J. Ens and Joe Sawchuck
  • Camie Augustus
From New Peoples to New Nations: Aspects of Metis History and Identity from the Eighteenth to the Twenty-first Centuries, by Gerhard J. Ens and Joe Sawchuck. Toronto, Buffalo, London, University of Toronto Press. xii, 687 pp. $95.00 Cdn (cloth), $48.95 Cdn (paper or e-book).

Recent years have experienced a surge in scholarship on Metis history, identity, and politics. Works by Chris Andersen, Brenda Macdougall, and Heather Devine, to name just a few, have created a growing body of literature that addresses contemporary and historical political and legal [End Page 371] contexts, particularly in regard to identity; that is, who is Metis. Until now, though, there has been no attempt at a comprehensive examination that ties those themes together. From New Peoples to New Nations does just that.

Co-authored by historian Gerhard J. Ens and anthropologist Joe Sawchuck, this book offers a broad overview of the major themes, events, and debates regarding Metis history and identity in Canada. The work consists of eighteen chapters divided among five thematic parts: ethnogenesis, nationhood, government policy, twentieth-century marginalization, and post-1960s identity. It is, for a large part, a synthesis of existing literature, though the authors have complemented this with additional archival research and fieldwork.

Identity, and particularly, the debate over who is Metis, constitutes the crux of this book. The authors address the complexities of this question, clearly positioning themselves in an anthropological approach that rejects what they call "Metis primordialism" — or, that ethnicity is determined by cultural structures such as kinship, race, or language (6). Instead, they adopt an approach that argues for Metis ethnicity as a product of context and circumstance — a combination of responses to political, economic, and social circumstances. Metis-ness for Ens and Sawchuk, then, would perhaps best be described as a social construction.

The authors make a strong case for this approach by their opening chapter, which addresses popular and scientific misinterpretations of hybridity. The belief that the Metis are defined by "mixed race" has been a long and enduring myth, and confronting this from the outset is a good start to the book. From there, they move on to examine other external conceptualizations of the Metis, including those of government, missionaries, and travelers. Following chapters examine key events in Metis ethnogenesis, including the fur trade, the Battle at Seven Oaks, and the resistances of 1869–70 and 1885. Here, the authors make no new contribution to the existing historiography, but offer a concise, readable, and comprehensive account of these important events. Treating each separately in its own chapter offers the reader a thorough enough treatment without weighing the text down.

The turn to the twentieth century is where one of the books greatest contributions lies in terms of its content. The marginalization, ostracization, and prejudice alongside growing and systematic poverty have been less attended to in the recent store of literature that has favoured reinterpretations of fur trade history and the post-1982 legal landscape over important but overlooked social, economic, and political changes in the twentieth century. Indeed, this is an area of Metis history that requires more attention, and Ens and Sawchuk give us a good start.

The overall argument against race as a legitimate concept for defining Metis — an important organizing principle of the book — was in places muddied by some contradictory language. Despite the authors' rejection of the idea of race, they still use race-based language to help navigate the [End Page 372] terrain of identity and belonging throughout the book. Terms such as "racial mixing" and "biracial" can be found without analysis or critical treatment, suggesting race-based categorization still constitutes the basis of thinking about Metis identity (the same contradiction can be found in the Daniels decision, 14 April 2016). So, while we might be making considerable progress in articulating Metis identity in terms of culture, community, and belonging, there still exists a reified categorization where racial purity (the opposite of racial mixing) is assumed to be real.

The criticism should not...


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