Métis Heritage and History
An Overview of Métis History
The Métis are one of the three aboriginal populations in Canada as defined by the Canadian Constitution. They developed out of the land and history of the Canadian West and have lived in Canada for well over two centuries. Unique in Canada, many feel that they are examples of the first Canadians.
The Métis trace their roots and evolution to the fur trade, where it was common for European men to take ‘country wives,’ or more accurately, aboriginal wives, while living in the New World. From these initial encounters, it did not take long for the Métis to develop a unique and distinct culture within pre-colonial Canada. The Métis quickly developed their own language, arts, music and crafts. Their stories and legends grew and did their pride in their own culture.
The blending of the two worlds, of the aboriginal and of the European, places Métis people in a unique position within Canada. They are able to see both sides of the story and are able to sit on both sides of the fence. This evident in the way the Métis distinguished themselves, and the Métis flag is a perfect example of this mindset.
The Métis flag embodies a number of the central characteristics of the people. The infinity symbol carries two meanings. It represents two circles joined, meant to symbolize the joining of two cultures. It also states that the culture shall live forever –to infinity—and that the practice and values of the Métis shall endure. This is an important aspect of the culture, for once you are Métis, you will always remain so.
The Métis within Canada
The history of the Métis travels through many eras; through first contact between Europeans and aboriginals and development of the Canadian West, to the current day. Much has changed over the years and the realities and existence of the Métis has changed a great deal as well.
Life was not always easy for the Métis and the changing colonial and political landscape of the 19th century placed the Métis at odds with the developing political forces of Canada. The conflict came from the Métis asserting their rights to their land and to trade. The colonial government of Canada was keen to see the land that Métis held included in Canadian expansion westward.
The Métis experience is one of peace and of resistance, and three significant periods of resistance against Colonial and commercial forces occurred.
The first significant Métis struggle came in 1818 at the Battle of Seven Oaks. In this battle, Cuthbert Grant led the Métis in a battle against Hudson’s Bay Company men who sought to curb the Métis livelihood as fur trade provisioners. It was here that the Métis flag was flown for the first time as symbol of the defiance and unique culture of the Métis.
Trouble started to brew again in 1868 at the Red River settlement, located under the current city of Winnipeg. There, the Métis lived for many years according to their own system of property and governance. Land was divided into a series of river lots that ran along the edge of the Red River. This method of land use was based largely on the traditional French system.
The Canadian officials moving into the Red River began resurveying these lots and suggested that the Métis would have to adopt different ways of property and life. This Canadian expansion created friction and conflict between the Métis and the Canadian agents, and ultimately, led to bloodshed in the Red River Resistance. Out of the Resistance, the Manitoba Act was passed which recognized Métis land, language and education rights, however for many, these promises did not materialize. Instead, Manitoba and the Red River was largely reshaped to fit the Canadian expansionist aims.
Following the Red River Resistance, many Métis headed further West and settled in present day Saskatchewan. Unfortunately, the Métis found they still suffered persecution from Canada and in 1888, the largest battle ever fought on Canadian soil occurred at Batoche. Here, the Métis made what in many ways would be their heroic last stand, for since that point, the Métis have been largely displaced from holding traditional lands.
Louis Riel, the famous Métis leader, arose out of these conflicts as his people turned to him for answers and leadership during the trying times. Riel was a key leader in the Red River Resistance, and was forced to flee to the United States following the rebellion.
Riel returned to his people during the events leading up to the Battle of Batoche. As tensions began to rise in Batoche, some prominent Métis leaders including Gabriel Dumont traveled on horseback to visit Riel and request his return.
Following the Battle of Batoche, Louis Riel was hung for the crime of treason for leading the Métis during these struggles. His grave in Winnipeg stands as a mute reminder of the ethos and manner of the times.
The years following the battles saw more hardship for the Métis. The buffalo, upon which they had relied upon for food and as a source of commerce, vanished and the Prairie was ghostly silent without the thunder of their hooves. Many Métis people quietly ‘forgot’ about their pasts as pressures of the era made being a ‘half-breed’ difficult.
Many Métis people also continued their migration further West during this time, chasing the few remaining buffalo, or seeking work, farms or the fur trade with which they were so familiar. A number of Métis settled in British Columbia and Alberta, thus extending the Métis homeland clear across five provinces of Canada.
Into the twentieth century, the Métis found themselves existing in an uncertain middle ground between the first nations populations and the European populations. Many of these ‘half-breed’s’ would end up in residential schools and suffering from racism.
It was not until the later part of the twentieth century did the Métis accomplish a number of significant achievements including formal recognition as an aboriginal people in the Constitution of Canada. Further, as Canada and Canadians began the process of reexamining its relationship with the aboriginal people within Canada, the Métis began to be viewed in a different light.
In 2002, the change in the political and social tide was visibly demonstrated when the Canadian Broadcast Corporation in cooperation with the National Post, aired a documentary re-examining the trial of Louis Riel. Of the 9700 respondents to a questionnaire that went out following the program, 87% felt the charge of High Treason against Louis Riel was inappropriate, and Riel’s name should be exonerated of the crime.
The present day offers many opportunities for Métis people to make their voices heard, and there are many doing so across the country. Métis people have a strong line of leaders to follow and should take pride in their history, achievements and culture.
Métis Culture, Song and Dance
Despite the political struggles that the Métis faced throughout much of their evolution, a strong and robust culture developed and was maintained throughout the years.
The Métis are perhaps most famous for their dances and music. Many Métis will have found memories of jigging until their legs are sore to the up-tempo rhythms of Métis fiddle music. The Métis fiddle style is a combination of many different fiddle styles, including Celtic and traditional French songs. The fiddle is played with a focus on creating danceable rhythms that jiggers can dance to.
Of all the Métis songs, the Red River Jig is perhaps the most famous. The exact origin of the jig is uncertain, but it is thought to have emerged from the Red River in the early to mid 18th century. As the Métis passed on songs by ear, many of the songs have evolved and changed over time, the Red River Jig being no exception to this. A fascinating example of this evolution is found on the Drops of Brandy CD published by the Gabriel Dumont Institute. There, a fiddle player by the name of Frederick Genthon, recorded his version of the Red River Jig in 1940. It is interesting to note how different his version is when compared to the versions we hear today.
Often accompanying the fiddle is the jig. Young and old, male and female, perform the jig, often with the younger jiggers performing with incredible speed and stamina. Jigging can be performed solo, in pairs, or in larger group dances, often involving complicated patterns and sequences of movement. Jigging competitions are regularly held across the country and bring smiles to the face of all who witness the dance.
The origin of the jig is multifaceted. Some jig steps were derived from the French and Scottish jigs that were common in the 18th century. Still others imitated the dances of wild birds commonly observed on the Prairies.
Jiggers today will often be seen performing famous Métis dances such as the Reel of Eight or dancing to more modern dance songs such as the Orange Blossom Special. It seems that whenever a song comes on with a good upbeat dance rhythm, jiggers will be on the floor performing their steps.
The Contemporary Métis
The Métis of the present day have much to be proud of, and are a multifaceted and diverse group. Métis people can be found in all walks of life and working in many different careers.
Many Métis people are also just beginning to reconnect to their past as well, perhaps through finally being told by a parent or grandparent that they are in fact Métis. For some, this discovery can be a challenging process, for others a blessing.
Fortunately, the Métis people and community in British Columbia has a number of advanced political bodies in place to handle the demands, requests and input from community members. The Métis Nation British Columbia, the governing body in BC, is there to accept and listen to your feedback and questions. The information below outlines the structure and function of MNBC.
Who and What is the Métis Nation British Columbia
Métis Nation British Columbia (MNBC) was established in 1996 as the representative organization for Métis in BC. In 2002, representatives of the Nation formalized the “National Definition” of Métis, which was used by the Supreme Court of Canada in the 2003 Powley decision. In 2003, the Government of Canada and the Government of British Columbia entered into a major tripartite agreement with the Métis in BC. MNBC is the first Métis government in the history of BC to demonstrate the will, determination and consistency required to enter such a monumentally important understanding. Further negotiations between the Provincial Government and MNBC. Métis Nation British Columbia continues to push for respectful recognition and reconciliation of our inherent Aboriginal rights, and our existence within the Canadian federation.
As of 2020, MNBC represents nearly 90,000 self-identified Métis people in British Columbia. Of those, over 20,000 are provincially registered Métis Citizens of MNBC. Recognized by the Métis National Council, the Province of British Columbia and the Government of Canada, MNBC is the official governing body of the Métis in BC. MNBC represents thirty-eight (38) Métis Chartered Communities in British Columbia and is mandated to develop and enhance opportunities for Métis communities by implementing culturally relevant social and economic programs and services.
Additional Learning Resources
If you wish to find out more about the history and culture of the Metis, we recommend the following sites:
History, Culture and Language
The Gabriel Dumont Institute
The Metis Resouce Center
Music and Dance
The Gabriel Dumont Institute
Metis Resource Center
Metis Nation BC Radio Show
Political and Governing Bodies
Metis Nation British Columbia
BC United Metis Youth Circle
Metis National Council
Metis Nation of Ontario
Manitoba Metis Federation
Metis Nation of Alberta