JustResearch Issue 15

Research in Profile (cont'd)

Research in Profile (cont'd)

A Program of Research Related to Historical Métis Communities[4]

Austin Lawrence, Senior Research Officer, Research and Statistics Division


With the Supreme Court of Canada decision in R. v. Powley [2003] 2 S.C.R., Métis were first recognized as having an Aboriginal right to hunt for food as recognized under section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.  This case was ground breaking for Métis people in Canada as it was the first instance where Métis people were able to successfully assert an Aboriginal right and provides the basis upon which other Métis Aboriginal rights can be argued.  The decision will have implications for governments for an incredibly wide range of areas beyond just the regulation of hunting.  For the federal government areas of possible implications span fisheries policy, to the ‘duty to consult and accommodate,’ to Aboriginal social programs, to national parks and monuments, to land and rights claims that overlap with those of other Aboriginal peoples, to Aboriginal participation in revenue-sharing and development agreements.  Essentially, the Powley decision has placed Métis issues on the policy map.

Together, the Office of the Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians (OFI) of the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, with the assistance of the Métis and Distinctions Team, Aboriginal Law and Policy Section (ALPS) of the Department of Justice Canada, led a Post-Powley Response Working Group with representation from a number of interested federal departments.  A major early task of this working group was to come to an understanding of the implications of the Powley decision for the federal government.  In order to understand the ramifications of the Powley decision it was necessary to start a process of inquiry to come to an understanding of to whom the Powley decision would apply.

The Supreme Court, in the Powley decision, outlined a basic legal test that an individual would need to pass in order to be considered “Métis” for the purposes of asserting Aboriginal rights under section 35 of the Constitution Act.  The major criteria – or “Powley test” – were three-fold; the individual must:

  1. identify as a Métis person;
  2. be a member of a present-day Métis community; and,
  3. have ties to a historic Métis community. 

Further to the third criterion, to be considered a ‘historic rights bearing community’ it must be proven that a mixed-ancestry group of Indian-European or Inuit-European people:

  1. formed a ‘distinctive’ collective social identity;
  2. lived together in the same geographic area; and,
  3. shared a common way of life. 

In addition, this historic community must be identifiable prior to the time when Europeans established ‘effective political and legal control’ in the geographic area.

Consequently, the Research and Statistics Division (RSD) in consultation with, and on behalf of DOJ Aboriginal Law and Strategic Policy, and the Office of the Federal Interlocutor for Métis and non-Status Indians (INAC), developed and managed a program which included 15 history-based research projects.  These particular research projects were designed to explore the history related to possible Métis ethnogenesis and the imposition of ‘effective European control’ in selected sites across Canada.[5]  This in turn, would provide information which might be used to discuss the possible existence of particular historic Métis communities across Canada and, generally, provide data with which to inform discussions that would assist in developing an understanding of how to interpret and apply the Powley decision.


The development of the research projects was constrained by the reasoning and conclusions laid out by the Supreme Court.  Thus, specific geographic areas were selected as the main frame of analysis.  After preliminary study of the academic literature in the field of Métis ethnogenesis, fifteen study regions were selected through consultation with interested federal government departments.  The sites were selected to provide a wide a range of historiographical situations, a broad range of different models of ethnogenesis, research in study areas where little had been published, all in areas where the federal government had a possible policy interest. 

Figure 1 – Map of Study Regions

Figure 1 – Map of Study Regions

The studies covered the geographic areas in the vicinity of:

  1. Lower Fraser River Valley, BC
  2. Central British Columbia, BC
  3. Western Mackenzie Drainage Basin, BC/YK
  4. Wabasca-Desmarais Settlement Area, AB
  5. Northeastern Alberta, AB
  6. Great Slave Lake, NWT
  7. Lower North Saskatchewan River, SK
  8. Cumberland Lake, MB/SK
  9. Northern Lake Winnipeg, MB
  10. Lake of the Woods, ON
  11. James Bay, ON
  12. Outaouais River, QB
  13. Northern New Brunswick, NB
  14. Southern Nova Scotia, NS
  15. Côte Nord, QB

Through a competitive process experts in researching historical Aboriginal communities were selected to undertake research in each of the study areas.  They were tasked by the Research and Statistics Division to uncover and present what documentary evidence existed that could address a number of research questions, which could assist the reader in coming to an understanding of the possible ethnogenesis of a Métis community in the area and information regarding a possible date of ‘effective European control’.[6] 

There is no agreed upon definitive criteria by which anthropologists, historians or sociologists determine an exact point of ethnogenesis.  Nor did the Powley decision clearly enumerate the interpretive boundaries surrounding the concept of ‘effective European control’.  Additionally, the historical method is constrained to data which was written down during the historic period and which was archived and conserved until the present-day. Therefore, wide latitude was provided to the researchers regarding the scope of the research questions, details of the historical research approach and techniques of analysis.

The research questions were clustered into three groups: those that might be used to determine ethnogenesis, those related to distinctive culture, and possible indicia of ‘effective European control’.  Questions that spoke to ethnogenesis asked the researchers to collect what information existed for individuals of mixed European-Indian and/or mixed European-Inuit biological ancestry in the areas of historical demographics, residency pattern, self-identification, other-ascription of group identity, linkages between individuals, and migration and marriage patterns.[7]  The second set of research questions asked the researchers to explore the defining traditions and customs, economic activities, cultural features, and geographic territory of any distinctive mixed-ancestry community.

The Textbook Story

There is an extensive and voluminous literature devoted to the history of Métis people and the Fur Trade era in Canada.  There is a focus on those groups connected to the historic Métis community of the Red River Valley with regard to the ethnically distinctive communities of mixed-ancestry people.  At times, writing on the history of mixed-ancestry people - especially popular accounts of Métis history, is reified and mythologized. 

This article does not have the space to provide a detailed historiography of writings on Métis history.  However, it is important to have some grounding in the broad contours of this ‘textbook story’ as taught to most Canadians, as the highlights of the emerging research trends are largely reactions against a simplified story line. 

When European colonists – the French and the English – arrived in what would become Canada one of their major economic activities was trading for furs with First Nations people.  Under the legal customs of many First Nations trading alliances were solidified through kinship ties and European men often were in need of mates and domestic companions.  The progeny of such conjugal unions, called ‘country marriages’ in English and ‘marriages à la façon du pays’[8] in French, were of mixed biological ancestry; possessing elements of the cultural heritage of both parents.   Sometimes such children joined their mother’s communities and their descendants took on their mother’s ethnicity.  In more rare cases the descendants of mixed ancestry children might be absorbed into (mainly European) settler communities.  In some areas of the country, many mixed-ancestry children grew up and raised their own families in communities that were both biologically and culturally mixed European-Indian.

The particular history of the fur trade in Canada’s west is of primary importance in the shaping of Métis ethnicity.  The two dominating fur trading concerns were the North West Company, headquartered and trading out of Montreal, and the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), headquartered in London, England and trading out of Hudson’s Bay.  Merchants of lowland Scottish origins largely directed the North West Company (NWC), while most ethnically European employees were of French-Canadian extraction.  The Hudson’s Bay Company was managed by English men, while the ethnically European employees were mainly Scots from the Orkney Islands or Scottish Highlands. 

The competing business interests, differing corporate cultures and policies towards interactions with First Nations peoples have been identified by historians as contributing to enmity between the two companies and to the shifting manner with which ethnicity and nationality were defined in regions touched by the fur trade prior to confederation.  Indicative of this is the Battle of Seven Oaks in 1816 between North West Company supporters and Hudson’s Bay Company supporters, the Red River Rebellion in 1870 and the North-west Rebellion in 1885, and might be extended to battles between mixed-ancestry people and other groups such as the Battle of Grand Coteau in 1851 against the Sioux.

Aside from this history of conflict and fur trade enmity as factors in Métis ethnogenesis  there are other popularly recognized currents to this history.  These include Foster’s hypothesis (1994) of “wintering” “outsider males,” which highlights the importance of European males over-wintering in First Nations communities, as well as the later independent “freeman” bands of individuals retired from the fur trade but still local to the region.  Historians such as Brown (1983) have been uncovering the importance of the liminal, bridging role of “country wives” and mixed-ancestry women in the gendered interaction between social groups.

One result is the ‘textbook story’ of Métis people existing in the popular imagination mainly as children of the western fur trade, products of conflict in the Red River Valley, standing firmly with cultural heroes such as Louis Riel, Cuthbert Grant and Gabriel Dumont. The markers of this history are inscribed in the cultural markers of the fur traders’: the ‘ceinture fleché’ sash, a particular style of fiddle music and jigging, an infinity symbol flag originating in the conflicts between the North-west Company and Hudson’s Bay Company, a technology of cartage (the Red River Cart), and an association with the economy of the buffalo hunt.   All hearken back to a particular time and place of birth for a particular conception of Métis identity.

Highlights of Selected Reports

The Powley decision allows for a broader view of what might constitute Métis history.  Although, perhaps, utilizing much of the logic behind the standard story of Métis ethnogenesis, the Supreme Court allowed for a broader vision for the possible emergence of section 35 rights bearing mixed-ancestry communities.  A number of the research projects highlight the historiographical considerations that need be considered in researching Métis ethnogenesis, thereby outlining where the standard story of Métis ethnogenesis might be augmented.

In the study of the James Bay area (Reimer and Chartrand 2005) the researchers primarily relied upon a sample of the vast number of Hudson’s Bay records drawn at roughly five year intervals.  They applied a kinship and genealogical analysis to these materials, cross-referencing with other historic records using an ethnographic lens.  They found that even though the area was always dominated by the HBC, ‘country marriages’ did occur with frequency.  Hierarchy and class were important determinants of marriage patterns, identity choice, and adult place of residence; all of which may have impacted upon the ascription of ethnic identity.  Thus, evidence was uncovered that other sources of social tension, such as classism and ethnocentrism, might have interacted to create social cohesion amongst groups that could have an ethnic character; even without independence from the fur trade or a ‘threat’ event.

In contrast to the previous anthropological study, the study of the Southern Nova Scotia area (Brown and Riley 2005) was very textual.  The study area had a very different history that was not strongly grounded in the fur trade and there existed only a scant set of historic records from which to draw.  Their approach was solidly historiographical and included elements of textual analysis.  A way to characterize the approach is that they examined the retelling of Nova Scotia’s mixed-ancestry story over time.  In this way they were able to comment upon the historical validity of previous histories written on the Métis history of the area, which was essentially a history dominated by the writing of Rameau.  This research largely deconstructed assumptions which may have been over-extended by previous writers and commentators, outlining the contours of how far a reader might realistically take the existing evidence.

The study of the Wabasca-Desmarais Settlement area in Alberta (Lacompte, et al. 2005) used a familiar historical approach to research and analysis.  However, the isolated, small communities existent in the area provided some interesting observations.  For example, though a western mixed-ancestry people, there was evidence that individuals in the area considered mixed-ancestry people of Red River to be different.  An example of this difference was their different fiddling and jigging styles.   As with other studies, such as the Cumberland Lake study (Cottrell, et al. 2005), once the researchers point of analysis came to rest on the individual, rather than the group, complexities emerge regarding the possibility of switching ethnicities or holding multiple ethnicities depending upon circumstance.  For instance, in the region the major point of ‘effective European control’ was the simultaneous arrival of the Half-breed Scrip Commission and the Treaty 8 Commissioners.  In effect, people were given a choice of becoming “Métis” in the eyes of the government and getting a land certificate that was also redeemable in cash or becoming a Treaty Indian and becoming a part of a band with a communal land base and a relationship to the Crown.  As a result, contrary to stereotype, mixed-ancestry people living more settled lives may have often opted to become Treaty Indians to solidify the roots of their families in the area, while those living more nomadic, subsistence lives hunting and gathering lives might have opted to take Métis scrip to remain unencumbered, by obtaining useful liquid capital.

While the Wabasca-Desmarais study highlighted the cultural permeability of biologically similar populations between the categories of Métis and Indian, the Côte Nord study (Turgeon, et al. 2006) identifies a shared mixed-ancestry culture of marginally mixed biological groups.  The methodology of the study combined a detailed genealogical analysis with a semantic analysis of ethnic terminology and research on the historic culture of costal communities.  The researchers found that the largely mixed Inuit-European families participated in a distinctive, local culture that drew elements from First Nations, Inuit and European societies.  However, people of sole European ancestry living in the communities participated in the same local culture and were often called by the same social labels.  Thus, indicating a situation where existed communities that may have been culturally mixed, while being only partially biologically mixed.

The study of the Great Slave Lake area (Jones 2006) used the methodology of ‘collective biography’ to elucidate the social history of groups.  This research shows that the particular personal history of family groupings can impact on the way in which they are positioned ethnically.  In the region, there appear to have been multiple manifestations of mixed-ancestry groups from a ‘new tribe’ composed of mixed-ancestry people to wage dependant people of mixed-ancestry sub-contracting to fur traders and explorers.  With different waves of immigration, the experience of being of mixed-ancestry or Métis shifted.  Interestingly, this appears to be the only study region in which the historic record shows mixed-ancestry people’s residence in the region prior to the arrival of Europeans.

A method similar to the ‘collective biographical’ method of the Great Slave Lake (Jones 2006) study was used in the study of the Central British Columbia area (Thomson 2006).  This study relied heavily on the method of prosopography, which in some respects resembles a more quantitative form of collective biography.[9]  Through fur trade occupational records and land pre-emption records the researcher charted personal and family relationships amongst people of mixed ancestry, which was compared to contextual information provided in fur trader and explorer accounts.  A message conveyed by the author was that, for the study region, the practises of mixed-ancestry people often appeared to be largely the practices of the fur trade, fur traders could be constrained to act according to the custom of local First Nations, and that the ancestral origins of mixed ancestry individuals lay almost exclusively outside of the study region.  Thus, in the two studies there is a contrast between mixed-ancestry people independent of the fur trade and mixed-ancestry people who were the agents of the fur trade.

Methodological and Conceptual Lessons Learned

The researchers of these historical reports grappled with a number of difficult methodological issues in researching this subject, including which documentary evidence to target in their search for information on mixed-ancestry communities and how to best sample and interpret the archival evidence they were able to uncover.  Each research team used a methodology which worked well to answer the research questions given the documentary evidence available to them for their study region.

As researchers were interpreting the evidence they uncovered and drafting their results, two conceptual issues were identified as being critical to presenting the materials in a way that would provide relevant information for detailed legal and sociological consideration.  The first issue was the extreme care that needed to be taken regarding the difference between culture and biology, while the second was the related issue of the care required when using ethnic labels for mixed-ancestry peoples.

Ethnicity is a difficult concept to define.  As Statistics Canada (2006) notes,

[t]he concept of ethnicity is somewhat multidimensional as it includes aspects such as race, origin or ancestry, identity, language and religion. It may also include more subtle dimensions such as culture, the arts, customs and beliefs and even practices such as dress and food preparation.  It is also dynamic and in a constant state of flux.

When collecting information that might be used to discuss a possible point of ethnogenesis for a historic Métis community, identifying what fact relating to an individual, group or community indicated a process of cultural or biological ‘mixing’ was central to being able to apply the Powley criteria and to discussing possible ethnogenesis.   This is because ethnogenesis is not the mere result of the biological mixing of genetically discrete populations.  Ethnogenesis is the result of cultural identification as an ethnically distinct social group by a population which interprets biological ties in a particular, socially relevant manner, and participates in a shared culture.

Ethnicity is, thus, a social construct of group identity that is often defined in terms of both cultural markers (such as religion and traditions) and biological markers (such as physical appearance or kinship).  To complicate matters, in the historical record it can also be ascribed by individuals belonging to the group (for instance, ‘I am Métis’) or ascribed by outsiders (for instance, ‘They are Métis’).

It is a common error in writing on the history of mixed-ancestry people in Canada to imply an ethnically Métis community has emerged merely as the result of mixed-ancestral parentage, through the application of modern definitions of the term “Métis” to historic populations.   The words used in the historic record confuse the issue, as the very word “Métis” originated as a simple description for a person of mixed parentage in French, yet has eventually become an ethnic label in English.  Thus, in addition, in different historic periods, for different groups, and in different languages the meaning of ethnic labels shifted with the context.

In order to address these issues in the research, it was determined that all ethnic labels for mixed ancestry people would be used as direct quotations from the original, primary documentary record.  It is recognized that this might result in a more pedantic writing style and, perhaps, a possible perception of sarcasm when selections are quoted out of context.   However, the advantage of not ‘colonizing’ the ethnic nomenclature of the past with the interpretations and debates of the present is critical in presenting as neutral an account of history as possible.

Next Steps

Historical research can engender as many questions as it answers, as information is uncovered new complexities and the present-day implications of sets of historical facts and situations emerge.  While these research projects have provided a wealth of information on the particular histories of mixed-ancestry communities across Canada, the information uncovered also highlight interesting questions regarding areas where more research and analysis may be required in order to address the complexity of intersection between mixed-ancestry history and the implications of historic Métis ethnogenesis.  Future applied historical research on the subject of Métis ethnogenesis could explore issues of the:

Reference List