Delegates from the Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF) will hold a meeting on Wednesday night in Yellowknife as part of their Beyond Borders initiative.
The movement, announced in June, is intended to better serve Métis with genealogical connections to the Red River Settlement in Manitoba who live outside the province.
Over the summer, MMF met with members living in BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. This week, the federation heads to the NWT.
“We’re going out to meet with citizens who are already signed up, who have their citizenship cards, and discuss ways we can provide for them, whether that’s better education, housing, or simply a stronger sense of identity,” said Will Goodon, leader of the federation’s Beyond Borders Task Force.
While that goal sounds innocuous, the project has ruffled some feathers. Some see it as a challenge to the existing registration process set out by the Métis National Council, or MNC. Under MNC guidelines, to be registered as Métis, members must apply to the MNC governing member for the jurisdiction which they reside.
“It is undemocratic and unacceptable for anyone to claim power outside of the jurisdiction they were elected to represent, and especially when an elected government already exists,” said Audrey Poitras, Métis Nation of Alberta president, in a statement emailed to the CBC when the project was first announced.
But for the Red River Métis, that system of registration doesn’t place enough emphasis on history.
“There’s certain other leaders, particularly in Ontario but also in Alberta and Saskatchewan, who think that it’s OK to let in anyone who has any Indigenous ancestry a few generations back, regardless of whether they have a connection to the historic Métis Nation,” said Goodon.
What does it mean to be Métis?
This tension goes back to a decades-old debate about what the word ‘Métis’ really means. For some Indigenous scholars, lawyers, and descendants of the Red River Métis, it refers to a specific group with its own cultural traditions based in and around Manitoba.
But for others, including the federal government, the term simply means having both white and Indigenous heritage. Hundreds of thousands of Canadians use the word ‘Métis’ in this way to describe their identity.
In the NWT, groups use the word to refer to people of both Dene and French origins. Some people who lost ties to their Indigenous roots under colonial policies say the word is a way to honour their ancestry.
The last time the issue was addressed in Canada’s Supreme Court, it was referenced in the 2016 Daniels v Canada decision as follows: “‘Métis’ can refer to the historic Métis community in Manitoba’s Red River Settlement, or it can be used as a general term for anyone with mixed European and Aboriginal heritage.”
Since then, the legal ambiguity around the term – in that it doesn’t delineate any particular community connection – has been fodder for controversy. For example, writer Joseph Boyden and filmmaker Michelle Latimer both identify as Métis and faced criticism when their heritage came under scrutiny.
Darryl Leroux, an associate professor in the Department of Social Justice and Community Studies at St Mary’s University, believes the word’s vague definition has enabled people in Ontario and on the East Coast with murky ties to Indigeneity to take up public space, resources and opportunities reserved for Indigenous people – a phenomenon he calls ‘raceshifting.’
“The actual Métis are a western-based Indigenous people whose culture grew out of kinship relations with the Plains Cree, Saulteaux, Assiniboine, and Dene,” he asserted as part of an online project on the subject.
What does this have to do with Wednesday’s meeting?
For Goodon, the Beyond Borders project is about taking back the ‘integrity’ of Red River Métis identity. This began by breaking with the Métis National Council last September and continues in this effort to reconnect with what the federation considers to be its community, no matter where people may currently reside.
“One of the things we’re trying to explain to people is that provincial and territorial borders, national borders? They’re all colonial. They’re not made by us or for us,” Goodon said.
“We’re interested in developing a stronger connection to our citizens, hearing their perspectives. And we’re not recruiting here, although if there are any who feel that MMF is the place to call home, we welcome them with open arms.”
Will this create any friction with NWT Métis groups?
Neither the North Slave Métis Alliance nor the NWT Métis Nation could be reached for comment. Goodon, however, said the answer to that question should be no.
“Our door is always open. It’s not like we’re trying to work around them. We’re trying to work with them,” he said.
“I’m not worried about that at all. They’re serving their citizens. It’s the Métis National Council that has failed to do that, by becoming a pan-Indigenous organization that lets anybody in.”
The Beyond Borders initiative will next head to Grand Forks in North Dakota, followed by Fort McMurray in Alberta. For more information on this and upcoming events, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org