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Métis in Canada: History, Identity, Law and Politics

By Christopher Adams, Gregg Dahl, and Ian Peach, Editors

Review By Jennifer Hayter

March 6, 2014

BC Studies no. 184 Winter 2014-2015  | p. 141-42

A decade has passed since R v Powley determined that the Métis in Sault Ste. Marie have an Aboriginal right to hunt, and we are still coming to terms with its significance. The multidisciplinary collection Métis in Canada is a welcome addition to the discussion, with its stated aim of enhancing our understanding of the post-Powley conceptual landscape. The book offers twelve chapters divided into four sections: identity, history, law, and politics.

It is by no means a unified book; the contributors’ perspectives are as diverse as the Métis themselves. Though the contributors generally use “Métis” in a broad manner to signify a type of people rather than a specific population (i.e. not just Red River), this is certainly not universal. For instance, Gloria Jane Bell and Darren O’Toole do not identify the mixed race peoples of the Great Lakes as Métis because, as O’Toole argues, they did not develop a political identity or national consciousness as did the Red River Métis. In examining depictions of Great Lakes métis (with a small ‘m’) clothing, Bell also concludes that they lacked a single identity and they did not consciously dress to represent themselves as a unique ethnic group. Ian Peach and Jeremy Patzer, in their chapters on Métis rights jurisprudence, differ on the meaning and consequences of Powley. Peach sees it as a conceptual breakthrough, since it was the first case to recognize the Métis as a distinct rights-bearing people unlike previous cases that derived Métis rights from First Nations’ Aboriginal rights (based on their “Indian blood” or “Indian mode of life”). Patzer, on the other hand, sees Powley as yet another case that grounds Aboriginal rights in a population’s “authenticity” — their adherence to a supposedly static and bygone culture. The book also features a diversity of opinion on the nature and goals of Métis political organization. Kelly L. Saunders argues the Métis have always seen themselves as a self-governing and sovereign people, and Janique Dubois explores how the Saskatchewan Métis have actually achieved a degree of self-governance. On the other hand, Christopher Adams, though he does recognize that the Métis aspire to govern their own nations some day, believes (somewhat controversially) that they are best understood as interest groups.

I have highlighted these differences to underscore one of the book’s themes — diversity — but the authors share the goal of working towards a more complex and nuanced understanding of “Métis.” By looking at the Métis from a variety of perspectives, the essays will certainly stimulate reflection and discussion. Other highlights of the book include four newly discovered writings by Louis Riel, transcribed, translated, and interpreted by Glen Campbell and Tom Flanagan. Historians will also appreciate Haggarty’s alternative economic history of the Métis, which explores a Saskatchewan Métis economy that was grounded in sharing, but not necessarily in the fur trade. There is little about British Columbia in the book, but this is not surprising as British Columbia is often excluded in Métis studies, as there is no consensus on the nature or even the existence of BC Métis. However, the themes the book examines will be of interest to scholars of Aboriginal studies across Canada.

Métis in Canada: History, Identity, Law and Politics
Christopher Adams, Gregg Dahl, and Ian Peach, editors
Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2013. 640 pp. $65.00 paper