The term Métis refers to a collective of cultures and ethnic identities that resulted from unions between Aboriginal and European people in what is now Canada. Métis stems from the Latin verb miscēre, “to mix.” The word initially referred to the children of these relationships, but over generations it came to refer to the distinct cultural identities these communities developed. In recent years, partially due to the Métis rights case R. v. Powley, the word Métis has shifted from referring to a single cultural identity produced by European-Aboriginal intermarriage across different communities, to applying to multiple identities that have arisen from diverse historical instances of Aboriginal-European heritage.
Métis peoples have developed a rich material culture, which includes the recognizable Métis sashes, intricate beadwork, moose hair tufting, Red River carts, and so on. While this section does not go into detail on the Métis material culture and traditions, the following links are valuable resources for learning more about these ways in which Métis cultures are expressed.
Métis peoples insist that they are part of a distinctive cultural group. However, Métis identity is frequently misinterpreted by non-Métis to refer simply to Aboriginal-European ancestry. Métis genesis is a vexing aspect of the discourse concerning Métis peoples. Some researchers, such as Olive Dickason, trace Métis origins to the policies employed by the French, whose traders were encouraged to seek marriage liaisons with Aboriginal peoples. Samuel de Champlain famously said in 1634, “our young men will marry your daughters, and we will be one people.”1 This reflected the French policy of recognizing and making use of established Aboriginal trading practices, including establishing family connections through marriage, which enabled settlers to better adapt to life in a foreign land.
Other researchers suggest that the genesis of Métis peoples took place in different ways at different times and places. As evidence, they point to the many and various locations that witnessed the development of Métis communities, including communities that were not only an amalgamation of European-Aboriginal unions, but also of unions between different First Nations.
The Powley case in 2003 set the legal definition of “Métis” as people who have continued ties to a historical Métis community, and are accepted as such by that community. Yet Métis identity is also adopted by some non-status Aboriginal peoples and others who have mixed Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ancestry yet are not connected to a contemporary Métis society. Others use Métis as a blanket term to identify anyone with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ancestry, regardless of how that person may self-identify. Some groups who may be identified as Métis prefer to be called Half-Breeds (in recognition of their English/Scottish rather than French heritage). Others prefer the term Otipemisiwak which is a Cree term meaning “the people who rule themselves.”
Many Métis groups have adopted terms of identity that separate their community from other Métis communities. An abundance of independent small-scale Métis societies are, perhaps problematically, represented by provincial and national organizations that seek to expand and develop further recognition of Métis rights in a collective sense. This relationship is not always mutually agreed upon or even desired by some communities.
Contemporary Métis identities are also an important dimension of academic discourse on Métis peoples. As exemplified in the Powley case, the term Métis has come to hold legal and political significance. In fact, Métis rights discourse has been at the cutting edge of Aboriginal rights discourse in Canada ever since the Powley decision. The issue of Métis identity will continue to be the topic of much debate and discussion, since Métis rights depend on identifying the people who are entitled to such rights, and then specifying what those rights are. The navigation of legal rights and terms of identity for recognized or unrecognized Métis peoples has been and will continue to be a major area of academic, legal, and political inquiry in Canada. And as scholars and other recognized experts revisit the role that historic Métis communities have played in the development of Canada, there will be many contributions made towards defining and establishing Métis rights, and celebrating the place of Métis peoples in the Canadian landscape.
The Red River Métis
One the best-known Métis populations began in the Red River region of what is now Manitoba. In 1869, Canada purchased Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company, without consulting the inhabitants of the area. The Métis of Red River, fearing that their title and rights were being ignored, set up a National Committee of Métis to stop the land transfer until their rights and title had been recognized. This action and the ensuing events would become known as the Red River Rebellion. Under the leadership of Louis Riel, the Métis set up a provisional government at Red River with the goal of negotiating terms for entering into Confederation with Canada. They drafted a Métis Bill of Rights, which was then sent to Ottawa. The Bill demanded the following rights, among others: to elect their own legislature at Red River, to elect federal Members of Parliament, to have both French and English recognized as official languages, and to maintain Métis culture and customs. When a Canadian surveyor in Red River was tried and executed for treason by Riel’s government, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald sent troops to assert Canada’s control over the region. Canadians who did not support Riel saw his acts as treasonable and wanted him executed. Riel fled to the United States.
Despite these setbacks, the Métis provisional government won federal approval of the Manitoba Act, which took effect in 1870 and led to the creation of the province of Manitoba. The Manitoba Act recognized Métis title to the land within the province, and Section 31 set out 1.4 million acres to be allotted to Métis children. However, acceptance of this land explicitly extinguished their title.
Louis Riel returned to Red River in 1884, and the Métis sent a petition to Ottawa requesting title to lands already occupied by Métis families, provincial status for Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Red River (also known as Assiniboia), and better treatment of all Aboriginal peoples. The lack of satisfactory response from Canada led to the Northwest Rebellion which ended after two months. Riel was tried for treason and executed in Regina on November 16, 1885. The government, however, did agree to issue scrip coupons (see “Scrip,” below) for land outside of Manitoba to the displaced Métis. Scrip Commissions were set up and continued to issue scrip until the first decade of the twentieth century.
Many people think of Red River as the centre of Métis genesis. Some scholars and experts, such as historian Arthur J. Ray, have termed this “Red River myopia,” as it stems from an unbalanced academic focus on Métis communities in the Red River region. This emphasis has rendered invisible the histories of Métis communities elsewhere in Canada. Partially due to the R. v. Powley case, which focused on Métis of Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario, recent academic and legal research has turned to other historic Métis communities and begun to correct the imbalance. Powley has shown that Métis rights are defined by the local histories of Métis communities, not by the history of Red River. Nonetheless, the Red River history is an important component of Métis and Canadian histories.
“The history of scrip speculation and devaluation is a sorry chapter in our nation’s history.”
—Supreme Court of Canada, R. v. Blais 2
Scrip is a certificate that can be exchanged for land (land scrip) or for money to buy land (money scrip). Scrip was used to transfer land to Métis peoples in Canada from 1885 until the 1920s. Land scrip allotted either 160 or 240 acres to a Métis individual. Authorities could allot the land anywhere in the province in which the scrip was issued, which caused many Métis individuals to relocate away from ancestral territories. Because of this, some chose not receive their land at all. Money scrip certificates were worth either $160 or $240, based on the often inaccurate assumption that land sold for roughly $1 per acre.
For a case study of one Métis man’s experience with scrip, see Frank Tough and Erin McGregor’s “‘The Rights to the Land May Be Transferred’: Archival Records as Colonial Text—A Narrative of Métis Scrip,” in Natives & Settlers, Now & Then: Historical Issues and Current Perspectives on Treaties and Land Claims in Canada, Ed. Paul W. DePasquale. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2007. 33-64.
In 1872, the Dominion Lands Act was passed, which encouraged settlement in the west by allotting farmland to settlers. The Métis heads of household who had been denied land under the Manitoba Act were now given land in the form of scrip. Many people found the scrip system problematic and susceptible to fraud, in part because scrip had to be redeemed at Lands Title offices that were hundreds of kilometers apart, necessitating several days of travel by each grantee. Some people sent others to redeem scrip on their behalf; others left their scrip unclaimed. Frank Tough and Erin McGregor’s examination of Métis scrip in Northwest Saskatchewan uncovered that, “of 742 land scrip coupons issued in the Claim Region, 725 were assigned to third parties, and only three coupons were converted by the grantee to a Letter Patent.” The Métis felt the policy of scrip infringed upon their rights and title, particularly as they waited for scrip while watching non-Métis settle on what they viewed as their land. Many Métis simply left Manitoba for Saskatchewan and Alberta to begin anew. In 2007 the Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF) took Canada to court to claim that the Métis never did receive the land they were promised in 1870. They lost their case, but MMF president David Chartrand stated that he believes the judge misunderstood the nature of Aboriginal title and its application to the Métis. The MMF plans to appeal their case to the Supreme Court.3
Alberta is the only province to recognize Métis title to the land. In 1938, the Albertan government passed the Métis Population Betterment Act. This established reserve land for Métis communities in central Alberta, known as settlements. Initially ten settlements were established, although at present there are only eight. The largest is Paddle Prairie at 169,909 ha4 with a 2008 population of approximately 700 people.5 There has been a gradual transition to Métis self-government within these settlements, starting with Métis title recognized for 512,000 ha of land in 1989, but the transition has also been met with challenges, such as political hurdles stemming from the failed Charlottetown Accord, and disagreements over management.6 The benefits and drawbacks of Métis settlements are widely debated, with arguments similar to those surrounding First Nations reserves.
Métis Rights and Contemporary Métis Issues
In the 1980s, with the patriation of the Constitution, Aboriginal groups wanted to ensure that Aboriginal rights would be constitutionally protected. They achieved this goal, with Aboriginal explicitly defined within Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, as including First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples.
The ensuing First Ministers Conferences set out to define these rights. The Métis were represented within the Native Council of Canada (NCC), but Métis participants in the conferences felt that the Métis peoples needed their own voice. In 1983 they separated from the NCC to form their own national body, the Métis Nation of Canada (MNC). The MNC identifies its role as uniting the Métis peoples on a national level and working towards securing “a healthy space for the Métis Nation’s ongoing existence within the Canadian federation.”7
R v. Powley
The 1982 Constitution guaranteed Aboriginal rights but did not define them. That was left to the courts. In 1998, R. v. Powley became a major test case in the arena of Métis rights, and the 2003 Supreme Court decision in the case remains the legal standard for determining what those rights are and who is entitled to them. Métis lawyer Jean Teillet worked on the Powley case. She summarizes R. v. Powley as follows:
On October 22, 1993, Steve and Roddy Powley killed a bull moose just outside Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. They tagged their catch with a Métis card and a note that read “harvesting my meat for winter.” The Powleys were charged with hunting moose without a license and unlawful possession of moose. In 1998, the trial judge ruled that the Powleys have a Métis right to hunt that is protected by s. 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. [After a series of appeals by the Crown] on September 19, 2003, the Supreme Court of Canada, in a unanimous judgment, said that the Powleys, as members of the Sault Ste. Marie Métis community, can exercise a Métis right to hunt that is protected by s. 35 of the Constitution.8
The courts further established the “Powley test” to determine what constitutes a Métis right, much as the Van der Peet test established guidelines to determine First Nations’ constitutional rights. The Powley test has ten components that examine whether the proposed right is a practice integral to Métis culture, whether the community it is connected to is Métis, what the historical time-frame of this right is, whether the right was extinguished or infringed upon, and so on. For more on the Powley test, please see our section on the Powley case. Once a right is identified, Powley further sets a process to identify who is entitled to such rights. Powley establishes that the individual must 1) self-identify as Métis, 2) have an ancestral connection to a Métis community, and 3) be accepted by that community as a member.
The Powley test is a continuation of the long-standing debate about who is Métis and who is not. For example, urban Métis are left out of the Powley decision, even though some Métis families have lived in the city for generations. The question of who should be entitled to Métis rights can create tensions between different Métis communities. Yet because the Powley case forces us to re-examine these issues, it has brought a resurgence of academic and legal inquiry into Métis identity and Métis rights. In the same way the Sparrow case has seen First Nations fishing rights grow into self-governance rights, some experts say Powley has the potential to develop similarly.
By Rick Ouellet & Erin Hanson
Books & articles
Binnema, Theodore, Gerhard Ens, and R.C. Macleod, eds. From Rupert’s Land to Canada: Essays in Honour of John E. Foster. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2001.
Brown, Jennifer. Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in the Indian Country. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1980.
Devine, Heather. The People Who Own Themselves: Aboriginal Ethnogenesis in a Canadian Family, 1660–1900. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2004.
Ens, Gerhard. “Dispossession or Adaptation?: Migration and Persistence of the Red River Métis, 1835–1890.” Canadian Historical Association, Historical Papers 23, no. 1 (1988): 120–144.
Ens, Gerhard. Homeland to Hinterland: The Changing Worlds of the Red River Métis in the Nineteenth Century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.
Pannekoek, Frits. “Métis Studies: The Development of a Field and New Directions.” In From Rupert’s Land to Canada, edited by Binnema et al, 111–128. Available online: http://hdl.handle.net/2149/81
Pannekoek, Frits. A Snug Little Flock: The Social Origins of the Riel Resistance, 1869–70. Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer, 1991.
Payment, Diane. “The Free People—Otipemisiwak,” Batoche, Saskatchewan, 1870–1930. Ottawa: National Historical Parks and Sites, Canada Parks Service, 1990.
Peterson, Jacqueline, and Jennifer Brown, eds. The New Peoples: Being and Becoming Métis in North America. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1985.
Sawchuck, Joe. “The Métis, Non-Status Indians, and the New Aboriginality: Government Influence on Native political Alliances and Identity.” Canadian Ethnic Studies 17, no. 2 (1986): 133–146.
Sawchuck, Joe. “Negotiating an Identity: Métis Political Organizations, the Canadian Government, and Competing
Concepts of Aboriginality.” American Indian Quarterly 25, no. 1 (2001): 73–92.
Learn Michif. http://www.learnmichif.com
An excellent, thorough website to learn about the Métis language Michif, as well as Métis cultures, history, and contemporary politics.
Metis Culture and Heritage Resource Centre: http://www.metisresourcecentre.mb.ca/
Virtual Museum of Métis History and Culture, by the Gabriel Dumont Institute of Native Studies and Applied Research. http://www.metismuseum.com/
Métis National Council: http://www.metisnation.ca/
Métis Nation of BC: http://www.mnbc.ca/
Métis Nation of Alberta: http://albertametis.com/
Métis Nation of Saskatchewan: https://metisnationsk.com
Manitoba Métis Federation: http://www.mmf.mb.ca/
Métis Nation of Ontario: http://www.metisnation.org/
1 See Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents 1610—1791, Vol V, p 209. Available online at http://moses.creighton.edu/kripke/jesuitrelations/relations_01.html
2 Supreme Court of Canada, R. v. Blais, 2003 SCC 44,  2 S.C.R. 236. September 19, 2003. Available online at: https://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/2077/index.do
3 Chartrand, David. “Louis Riel will smile: Appeal will find court decision on Métis flawed,” Winnipeg Free Press, 6 January 2008. Available online at Manitoba Métis Federation, Land Claims Decisions. Downloadable to view here.
4 Métis Settlement General Council, Paddle Prarie Métis Settlement Profile. https://msgc.ca/paddle-prairie-metis-settlement/
5 This figure is of 2008. Alberta First, Paddle Prairie Métis Settlement. https://open.alberta.ca/dataset/d3004449-9668-4d02-bb88-f57d381a6965/resource/7a60ffcb-b3a8-4a5c-baa6-e409309cb8e0/download/2015-08-metissettlementprofile.pdf
6 Dickason, Olive. Canada’s First Nations. 3rd Ed. Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2002. 351.
7 Métis National Council, overview. https://www2.metisnation.ca/about/
8 Teillet, Jean. “R. v. Powley, A Summary of the Supreme Court of Canada Reasons for Judgment.” Pape & Salter Barristers and Soliciters. Available online at: http://albertametis.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/MétisRights_Powley_supremecourtsummary.pdf