- Defining Métis: Catholic Missionaries and the Idea of Civilization in Northwestern Saskatchewan, 1845-1898 by Timothy P. Foran
As a researcher who has spent many a trying hour deciphering the pinched and minuscule scribbling of nineteenth-century Oblate missionary priests in hopes of obtaining descriptions and insights regarding the Indigenous communities with whom they lived, I was delighted by the promise and premise of Foran's book. As he comments in his excellent introduction, previous researchers using these records have overlooked "the origins, education, affiliation and clerical status" of missionary authors, as well as "their reasons for writing, their intended audience, and their use of epistolary codes and conventions," "emphasizing content to the exclusion of authorship, intention and form," turning "missionary commentators into an undifferentiated, unchanging, and unbiased record-keeping body" (p. 3). In this criticism, Foran includes demographic historians using missionary-generated records to develop population studies, stating that "census-taking and record-keeping were assumed to be standardized, objective, and impersonal processes that registered unequivocal data on Métis communities" (p. 3). He writes that "implicit … in these historiographies is the notion of a singular, empirically existing, and readily identifiable Métis population that was susceptible to discovery and description by Catholic missionaries. The present study complicates this notion by contending that Catholic missionaries did not simply discover and describe Métis populations, but rather that they played a critical role in its conceptual production and in the delineation of its collective characteristics" (p. 4). This matters, as Foran points out, because after Canada purchased the territory in which these people lived from the Hudson's Bay Company, "the state drew heavily on Catholic missionary knowledge to identify, classify, and govern its newest Indigenous charges" (p. 5). The Oblates, for whom the generation and keeping of narrative and demographic records on their missions was an essential task mandated from the highest authorities in their order, contributed advice, the influence of their priests, and information from their vital statistics registers to Canadian officials for such processes as Treaty negotiations and the issuance of land entitlements to Métis people. These processes and classifications have had profound and long-lasting implications for Indigenous communities, which have in many cases been fractured and colonized by these distinctions in ways that have become deeply entrenched.
The origins of this book lie in an accession of records from the Oblate mission at Île-à-la-Crosse in present-day northwestern Saskatchewan to the archives maintained by the Société historique de Saint-Boniface in Winnipeg, completed just as Foran was starting the research for his doctoral thesis. This mission, located at an important point along fur trade routes of the late eighteenth to late nineteenth centuries, had been identified by researchers (and by Métis people themselves) as the location of an early-origin historic Métis community of notable persistence and resilience, incorporating successive waves of newcomers into family networks over time. Foran was therefore surprised when the missionary [End Page 232] chroniclers of this community consistently applied the term "sauvage" to their charges, introducing the term "métis" into their records only in the early 1870s, about 25 years after their arrival. The term "métis," theorizes Foran, was applied only when Indigenous people fit "the Oblates' conception of le peuple métis as an Indigenous collectivity exhibiting clear markers of a Lower Canadian paternal heritage—namely communication in a dialect of French and membership in the institutional Catholic Church" (p. 9), a conception formed in Red River, where mission activity had commenced in 1818 and where the most senior posts in the Catholic hierarchy were located.
Given contemporary controversies of regarding the appropriate use of the term "Métis" for Indigenous populations across Canada and claims to the term by a range of self-identified Indigenous persons (let alone the present-day parsings of the word "sauvage" or "savage" in historical documents), an analysis of the assumptions and applications of those terms in the Oblate source material...