From New Peoples to New Nations: Aspects of Metis History and Identity from the Eighteenth to the Twenty-first Centuries

From New Peoples to New Nations: Aspects of Metis History and Identity from the Eighteenth to the Twenty-first Centuries

Gerhard J. Ens and Joe Sawchuk

Reviewed by Gabrielle Legault

Gerhard Ens and Joe Sawchuck’s co-written volume From New Peoples to New Nations approaches historical and contemporary Métis identity from a perspective that is uncommon and even contested among Indigenous histories. From a social constructionist approach, Ens and Sawchuk present Métis identity as having been constructed over time through particular racial, ethnic, and nation-oriented discourses, citing important historical events and figures, historical writing, Métis political organizations, and government policies. As an attempt to “update, rethink, and tie together three centuries of Métis history” (4), From New Peoples to New Nations offers a timely contribution to an emerging scholarship focused on Métis identity.

Situating Métis experiences within their broader historical and political contexts, chapters are arranged into thematic and chronological sections. The stage is set with early chapters focusing on a theoretical discussion of hybridity as well as the economic basis of Métis ethnogenesis. Tracing the contours of the historical development of Métis Nationalism from the early nineteenth century to the 1930s, the following chapters provide an uncommon analysis of various forms of Métis nationalisms that emerged out of conflicts between fur trade companies, Louis Riel and his contemporaries, and post-resistance historical writings. Ens and Sawchuk then position the emergence of a distinct Métis status (and inextricably, Métis identity) in the late nineteenth century as materializing out of government interventions and policies that were intended to corral Indigenous people and extinguish their existing Aboriginal rights. The following sections focus on the development of Métis identities post-nineteenth century, including the emergence of provincial Métis organizations as a response to economic marginalization, the precedent of the civil rights movements of the 1960s, and the recognition of Métis as an Aboriginal people within the Canadian Constitution in 1982.

Ens and Sawchuk provide a comprehensive review that not only reveals the complexity of the history of Métis nationalism, but also traces the changing circumstances that influenced the various ways in which Métis identity has been formulated, measured, and re-enforced. Despite remaining silent on the subject of Métis people living west of the Rockies, the work extends into geographies that are at times ignored by Métis historians including the Northwest Territories and the United States. The meticulous legwork required to thoughtfully detail the multiple (and often contradictory) constructions of Métis identity over time is a formidable undertaking. As a result of its diligent research and unique analytical perspective, From New Peoples to New Nations will be a valuable resource for anyone interested in historical and contemporary Métis identities.

From New Peoples to New Nations: Aspects of Metis History and Identity from the Eighteenth to the Twenty-first Centuries
Gerhard J. Ens and Joe Sawchuk
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015. 704 pp. $48.95 paper

BC Studies no. 192 Winter 2016/17