Tens of thousands of Canadians have begun calling themselves Métis, Darryl Leroux finds, and now they’re trying to get the courts to agree.
In October 2004, a small group of hunters gathered in a large tent in the Chic Choc Mountains, south of Gaspésie National Park. Raymond Cyr, the director of an organization that delivers education for people with physical disabilities, had joined his cousin Marc LeBlanc, a hunting and fishing guide, for the moose season. A tourist haven in the summer, the region becomes a hunting and fishing destination when the leaves start to turn. Rugged four-wheel drive and all-terrain vehicles, fully loaded trailers and weathered campers crisscross the network of old logging roads off the winding path of Highway 299, which cuts through the stark limestone cliffs of the Cascapédia River valley.
The Cascapédia is a world-class Atlantic salmon river. Since the final years of the nineteenth century, private lodges on its banks have attracted a steady clientele of elite fishermen, including the likes of Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise, as well as Bing Crosby, Jimmy Carter and Paul Newman. The region’s reputation has expanded still further since the early nineties, when a nearby area of the Chic Chocs close to the Grand and Petit Cascapédia Rivers became popular with moose hunters from the Gaspé Peninsula and further afield.
LeBlanc had been active in the area since 1992. But as the cousins sat in their tent together that fall day, twelve years later, they faced a quandary: an agreement in Gaspésie between the provincial government and the Gesgapegiag Mi’kmaw community would set up a Mi’kmaq-controlled territory which would offer outdoor activities for a fee (in French, the term is “pourvoirie,” which refers to both the territory as well as the entity controlling it). Under Gesgapegiag’s plans, the territory would include an interpretative centre and hiking and horseback-riding trails, as well as outfitting services such as guiding, accommodation and meals.
The chief of Gesgapegiag at the time, John Martin, explained in a regional news report that the project aimed, in part, to decrease pressure on the local moose population by managing the number of hunters in that area. In 2005, 102 moose had been killed in the territory of the proposed project—seven by Mi’kmaw hunters, and the remaining ninety-five by non-Mi’kmaw hunters.
“Québec is a huge province where Québécois hunters can find other hunting spots while being in their culture,” Catherine Johnson, official spokesperson for the Mi’kmaq, said at the time. “But Gaspésie is the traditional territory of the Mi’kmaq... It’s here that we’ve lived for millennia, it’s here that we speak our language... We must stay here, develop here, and work here if we want to preserve our Mi’kmaw history and culture.”
The agreement had been officially in the works since 1999; by the time of Cyr and LeBlanc’s hunting trip in October 2004, it was receiving substantial media coverage. If it went forward, it would join nearly seven hundred other privately operated outfitting territories in Québec, including about a dozen in Gaspésie and several dozen managed by Indigenous communities. It would have been the second pourvoirie operated by the Mi’kmaq, and, throughout the process, the Gesgapegiag negotiators had insisted that the project was central to their efforts to reconnect with their historical territory and build their economy, as it would employ about twenty community members. Nonetheless, many locals were angry. At community consultations about the project, the atmosphere was heated; Johnson says that there were plainclothes police officers seated in the crowd, and, at one point, an angry audience member attempted to grab the microphone out of her hand.
Cyr and his hunting group were also upset. Facing the possibility of either having to pay a fee to access the territory or having to seek a new hunting territory—and already annoyed by the incursion of logging into the area—Raymond Cyr developed an alternative proposal. He, LeBlanc and a small group of hunters who hunted on adjacent territory had a habit of meeting in a communal tent every evening during the short moose season to discuss the day’s hunting. During one of their nightly get-togethers, according to court documents and the recollections of three people present who spoke to Maisonneuve, Cyr suggested that members of the hunting party claim an Aboriginal identity. Each, after all, likely had long-ago Indigenous ancestry—scholarly estimates in historical demography reckon that a majority of the descendants of early French settlers have at least one Indigenous ancestor. And in Cyr’s case, he says, he was sure that he did; his family had always talked about it.
But Cyr’s plan was met with some disbelief, as one fellow hunter, a police officer named Benoît Lavoie, expressed skepticism:
“We’ve never had rights, only Indians have had rights, us, we don’t have any,” he said, according to court documents. Cyr boldly responded with four fateful words: “Read the Powley decision.”
Within eighteen months of their initial discussion in the tent, LeBlanc incorporated an organization he called the Gaspé Peninsula Métis Community (GPMC). Under that name, the group began lobbying against the Mi’kmaw project. “By following the right approach, there might be a way to obtain an injunction against this project [Aboriginal outfitters],” LeBlanc told a local newspaper in July 2006. “We’re going to tell the federal government that we have Métis people in Gaspésie and that our territory is currently being stolen. We’ll ask the Government of Canada to give us time and the financial means to survey the number of Métis, write the history of the Gaspésie Métis community, and stop the outfitters project.”
Before long, the GPMC’s intervention as an “Aboriginal” people and the group’s broader political opposition had succeeded in slowing down the progression of the Mi’kmaw project, which was eventually shelved by the government.
Buoyed by this early success, the GPMC rebranded—twice—as both the Gaspé Peninsula, Lower St-Lawrence, Magdalen Islands Métis Aboriginal Nation (GPLSLMIMAN) and the Métis Nation of the Rising Sun (MNRS). Over the years, it became a twenty-thousand-member strong “Indigenous nation,” as it called itself in court documents, claiming territorial rights to a large swath of the North American continent.
That was still just a harbinger of things to come. Twenty-five such organizations representing self-identified “métis” people in Québec have been created since 2004, about twenty of which were still active as of summer 2018. Data collected from organizational records and media reports show that ten of these organizations alone had at least forty-two thousand members by the end of 2017. They charge between $30 and $260 for first-time members (excluding any additional fees associated with genealogical research services), and subsequent annual membership fees usually run in the range of $30 to $40. According to financial records obtained through court documents and public updates to members, the bulk of the funds these organizations raise are spent on lawyers’ fees and other costs associated with court cases. The MNRS, for example, raised over $110,000 in annual membership fees in its 2011–2012 fiscal year, and a whopping $312,188 in 2015–2016; in a letter to its members dated December 20, 2017, “grand chief” Benoît Lavoie explained that in the previous ten months alone, the organization had spent over $68,000 on lawyer’s fees, bringing the grand total to over $340,000 since its inception in 2006.
Québec is often celebrated as a “genealogist’s paradise.” I know this firsthand after researching, as an academic, my own family tree in Québec. I know something else firsthand as well: some of my family members have talked about claiming Indigenous identity, even though it turns out their branch of the family tree includes no Indigenous ancestors whatsoever.
Interested in whether others were doing the same, I began in 2013 to dig through thousands of pages’ worth of court documents, membership records and local media reports to trace this growing urge to self-indigenize, and understand what it meant.
The movement, I’ve found, is more than a benign bit of historical revisionism or quirky reconciliation-era misunderstanding. Many of these groups have mobilized a little-known court decision to oppose the hard-fought hunting and territorial rights of Indigenous nations across Canada, particularly in Québec. And some even owe their origins to explicitly anti-Indigenous, white rights activism.
In a unanimous decision on September 19, 2003, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) pronounced its first major ruling setting out the identification of a Métis person for the purpose of accessing Aboriginal rights. The case, called R. v. Powley, revolved around the father-son team of Steve and Roddy Powley, who shot a bull moose without a hunting licence near Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, on the morning of October 22, 1993. Later that day, at home, Steve Powley affixed a handwritten tag to the ear of the moose that indicated the date, time, and location of the kill (as per hunting regulations), his Ontario Métis and Aboriginal Association membership number and a statement explaining that he was harvesting meat for winter. Two conservation officers arrived at the Powley residence before nightfall and the Powleys openly admitted that they had shot the moose.
A week later they were charged with hunting moose without a licence and unlawful possession of moose in contravention of Ontario’s Game and Fish Act. In 1998, a provincial trial judge dismissed the charges, and after a series of appeals by the Crown, both the Ontario Superior Court of Justice and the Ontario Court of Appeal confirmed the trial judge’s decision. Ultimately, the SCC agreed with the three provincial court decisions, affirming that the Powleys had a constitutionally protected Aboriginal right to hunt for food as Métis people.
As part of its ruling, the SCC introduced a ten-part test, called the Powley Test, to define Métis rights and identify Métis rights-holders. According to the SCC, to be recognized as Métis with Aboriginal rights under section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, an individual must self-identify as a member of a Métis community with an ongoing connection to a historic Métis community, prove an ancestral connection with a historic Métis community whose collective rights they are exercising, and prove acceptance by the contemporary community, which may include a Métis political organization, if its membership requirements and role in the Métis community are put into evidence.
At the time, the ruling was largely seen as a victory for the Métis people—that is, the Indigenous collectivity associated with the Red River diaspora, and primarily located in the prairie provinces—since it clarified section 35 Métis rights. Chelsea Vowel is but one Métis intellectual who has recently written about the specificity of the Métis as a “post-Contact Indigenous people with roots in the historic Red River community.” Vowel, along with other Métis thinkers like Jennifer Adese, Chris Andersen, Adam Gaudry, Brenda Macdougall, Darren O’Toole, Jean Teillet, Jesse Thistle, and Zoe Todd, have been pushing back at the commonplace understanding of “métisas-mixed” in Canadian society: that the term Métis describes anyone with any Indigenous ancestry.
What makes the Métis an Indigenous people, they say, is the development of their own political institutions, linguistic practices, and cultural forms that depended on ongoing kinship relations with Cree, Saulteaux, Assiniboine and Dene peoples. “Métis are a people, not a historical process,” wrote Gaudry in 2016 for the Canadian Encyclopedia. Plenty of mixed unions happened throughout Canadian history, he wrote, but the children of most of those unions found their place in one of their parents’ communities—or both. “Historical Métis,” he wrote, were not the automatic result of “mixing,” but “were real human beings who had choice in the matter and who created a political and social entity on their own accord.”
Nonetheless, by partially following the “métis-as-mixed” framework, the Powley decision quickly became a pivotal event: tens of thousands of otherwise white people turned to a new “métis” identity in Québec and other eastern provinces. That aftermath laid the terms for an odd, decades-long battle that has frustrated many Indigenous people: if you believe that someone is acting in bad faith and claiming an Indigenous identity that is not theirs to claim, how do you push back? And, making matters more difficult, what if those people truly believe in their claim to that identity, even when Indigenous people, all levels of government and the courts, continuously rebuff them?
“Powley was like lightning in a blue sky,” said a leader of one of the new “métis” groups in an interview later submitted to the courts. “It was... really Powley that started everything.” But the Quebec “métis” leaders that Maisonneuve contacted for this story say it’s not fair to call their plan manipulative, to read dishonesty into the fact that they only started publicly identifying as Métis after the courts opened a gateway. Rather, they say, courts have always helped decide who counts as Indigenous in Canada, so they must try their luck there. Cyr, for example, told Maisonneuve that his “métis” group was a legal entity, and the term “métis” was simply a tool for dealing with the government. “It’s not a reserve, it’s just an incorporation,” he says. “Its only purpose is just to represent the [members’] interests.” But Cyr sees nothing wrong with that: while he genuinely believes in his own Indigenous identity, he says he was also inspired to begin using the term “métis” because it was politically expedient.
“We did not know at the time what it was called,” Cyr says. “The term Métis was not used; the term Métis belonged to Western Canada.” His father forbade him from using the word “métis,” he said, even while talking about their family’s Indigenous heritage. But later, he realized it would be better to use this term than something like “sauvage,” he told Maisonneuve, in French. Maisonneuve contacted ten people affiliated with the new “métis” groups who are named in this story for comment, six of whom responded—and all of whom echoed what Cyr said about why they appeared to suddenly claim this identity. “We do not deny the rights of other Indigenous groups, but we declare that we have the same rights,” says LeBlanc.
So far the courts haven’t lived up to the faith these groups have placed in them. Six cases have been brought forward by organizations or individuals seeking recognition as Métis people under the Powley Test in Québec since 2006: Bolduc in 2011, Corneau in 2015 and 2018, Noêl in 2016, Paul and Vallée in 2017, and Marchand-Oakes in 2018. None has managed to pass the Powley Test. Even so, there are currently at least six other Powley cases on the dockets in Québec— three prompted by the MNRS, and three by individuals or organizations of similar provenance—and several others waiting in the wings.
To be clear, there is widespread consensus among Métis political organizations and intellectuals that the Métis constitute a distinct Indigenous people—and, further, that these Québec-based organizations are not Métis at all. “It’s very damaging,” Jesse Thistle told CBC Radio last year. The fact that new claims to a Métis identity have piled up so quickly has led to widespread confusion among non-Indigenous people, who don’t tend to know how Indigenous peoples traditionally recognize kinship and belonging. If all French descendants with a seventeenth-century Indigenous ancestor suddenly claimed to be Indigenous there would be over six million new Indigenous people in Canada, more than tripling the current number. At a time when Canadians are in reflection about their history, and the meaning of truth and reconciliation, these claims can threaten Indigenous peoples in the most basic of ways, by undermining their sovereignty and self-determination.
Across the St. Lawrence River from Gaspésie in Nitassinan, In Innu territory, a process eerily similar to the founding of the Gaspé group had unfolded eighteen months beforehand. The Communauté Métisse du Domainedu-Roy et de la Seigneurie de Mingan (CMDRSM) became the first Québec-based organization to attempt to meet the Powley Test as an intervenor in a case that went before the Québec Superior Court in March 2006. Known colloquially as the Corneau case, it involved the illegal construction of hunting camps on public land.
The CMDRSM’s creation—in Chicoutimi, at the head of the Saguenay River, just over a year before it intervened in the case—was directly tied to the negotiation of a comprehensive land claim in the area. The Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean and Côte-Nord regions have been home to an active, generations-long movement against Innu rights to hunt and fish. Starting in 1864, the government restricted the Innu from salmon fishing on the ribbon of rivers that flow into the lower section of the St. Lawrence. A protracted battle between the Innu and police, as well as white residents, who were backed by the government, carried through the 1970s and 1980s, likely resulting in the death of two Innu fishermen (while the Innu suspected that the fisherman had been murdered, no charges were ever laid). After this period, which came to be known as the “Salmon Wars,” Innu fishing rights were partially restored to most of the rivers in the territory as the government finally began to realize that its position was legally untenable.
In 2000, a framework agreement was announced that would have further recognized Innu harvesting rights over a large regional territory. Though the agreement was opposed by grassroots Innu activists—it would have meant waiving any rights to future litigation—it nonetheless led to a significant backlash among local white Franco-Québécois residents, including hunting, fishing and landowner organizations, as well as municipal governments and politicians. The opposition spawned three white rights organizations in the region, two of which were believed to have mobilized thousands of new individual and corporate members within two years—the Fondation Équité Territoriale (Organization for Territorial Fairness, or OTF) and the Association pour le Droit des Blancs (the Association for White Rights, or AWR). This “white rights” activism generally took the form of attacking the Innu framework agreement, with members speaking against it at public hearings and giving comments to media.
“Eastern métis” leaders who spoke to Maisonneuve vehemently denied that their groups grew out of hostility towards local Indigenous peoples. Yet it would have been clear to many locals in the Chicoutimi region that the CMDRSM’s origins lay in this activism against local Innu. André Forbes, the founder of the AWR, became a key founding board member of the CMDRSM and the “chief ” of its Métis Côte-Nord “clan” in 2005, making him the de facto leader of its membership in a large region along the North Shore. Prior to his mercurial transformation into a “métis chief,” Forbes was one of the most outspoken leaders of the white rights movement in the region. (Forbes did not respond to a request for comment.) Shortly after the signing of the agreement-in-principle in April 2002, he was quoted in an article for Québec-Citybased daily le Soleil; he argued that the treaty negotiations represented “hateful politics that create social tensions like those in Israel.” At a rally, Forbes also coined the term “Red Taliban” to refer pejoratively to Indigenous peoples in the region, summoning a toxic mix of anti-Indigenous and Islamophobic symbolism. As president and spokesperson of the AWR, Forbes was provided with regular coverage in several regional newspapers and became infamous for stoking anti-Indigenous fires—the Liberal Party of Canada dropped him as its 2011 candidate in the federal riding of Manicouagan when his anti-Indigenous rhetoric came to light.
The evolution of a figure renowned for his incendiary anti-Indigenous stance into a “métis” leader might seem to be an extreme identity shift—but only if you take the self-indigenization of Forbes and his colleagues at face value. In examining the thirty-one interviews that the CMDRSM submitted as part of its effort to meet the Powley Test in the Corneau case, it becomes clear that many of its leaders were active participants in and even instigators of the anti-Innu and white rights movement in their own region between 2000 and 2004. Their founding “chief,” Jean-René Tremblay, explained the reasoning behind the group’s creation. “The Métis community is the only way to counter the Innu, who want to control the entire territory. [White people] tried with other organizations, for example, Équité Territoriale, which... failed because to effectively counter a treaty, you have to be a part of it,” Tremblay told the anthropologist conducting the interview for the CMDRSM. “To be a part of it, you’re either the government or you’re Aboriginal.”
Tremblay’s own assertion of Indigenous identity clearly exposes how these claims aren’t always backed up by actual proof. In his interview, he asserted that he had a sixth-generation ancestor who was “pureblood Innu,” yet the genealogical chart that the CMDRSM submitted for Tremblay in the Corneau case indicates an entirely different story. (Tremblay did not respond to a request for comment.) It appears that his only Indigenous ancestor is Marie Olivier Sylvestre, an Abenaki woman who was born in the mid-1620s. In other words, the ancestor who Tremblay claims is 100 percent Innu is in fact a distant descendant of an Abenaki, not Innu, woman who lived entirely in the seventeenth century. Given her early marriage in New France in 1644, Sylvestre likely has over half a million direct descendants today, of which only a tiny minority claim to be Métis or Aboriginal.
A third founding board member, Ghislain Corneau, also openly discussed how the CMDRSM played into local racial politics in his interview. “White people are pleased with us, this is evident because we’re going to protect them,” he said. Like Tremblay’s claims to indigeneity, Corneau’s “métis” identity doesn’t appear to stand up to scrutiny. As the Québec Superior Court decision in the Corneau case makes clear, despite knowing about his limited Indigenous ancestry from childhood, he only started to identify as Indigenous after he was charged with a hunting-related offense in 1999. He then joined the Alliance autochtone du Québec’s Chicoutimi local, for which he claimed to be a non-status Indian on the strength of an Innu ancestor born around 1785. “It took me three years to find my Indians [sic], so it was a long time,” Corneau explained about his self-indigenization in his interview. “I have to find the Indian [blood] and then I’ll go get my cards,” he recalled, describing his thought process. It was only after the Alliance withdrew its support for him in court that Corneau began to identify as “métis” and joined the CMDRSM, which financed his legal defence. Corneau didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Finally, Claude Pineault—listed in their incorporation documents as a fourth founding board member, and “chief” of the CMDRSM’s Métis du Grand-Brûlé “clan” at the time of the interviews—became a household name in francophone Québec when a video of his presentation (and that of his wife and fellow member, Geneviève Caron) at a provincial government commission on secularism went viral in January 2014. Facing rows of onlookers in one of the grand halls at the Québec National Assembly building, both shared in cringe-worthy detail their Islamophobic opinions.
In his 2007 interview, Pineault’s oral history openly equivocated between his previous identity as white and Québécois and his newly embraced identity as “Aboriginal”: “I consider myself less white than I did before [the treaty negotiations], because [the government] betrayed us,” he said. “Those people are supposed to be there to represent us, to defend our rights.” He then explained that his involvement in the OTF was linked to anger in the region at what he explained as “white people giving the land to the Indians.” He went on to outline the degree of opposition in the region in stark terms: “When we spoke about the [treaty negotiations] at the start, everybody was pissed, scared and wanted to kill everything that had to do with Indians.” Pineault claims he tried to act as a voice of reason. Like Tremblay, Pineault had first publicly claimed Indigenous ancestry and identity quite recently, in his 2006 income tax filing. Unlike Tremblay and Corneau, no court filing outlines Pineault’s genealogy. Pineault asserted to Maisonneuve in an email that he, like most of the region’s population, is indeed of mixed heritage. He said, in French, that “before the federal and provincial governments’ threats to deprive us of our property, we didn’t have to make statements about our origins.” On the subject of his comment that people wanted to “kill everything that had to do with Indians,” he said, “sometimes people can say things thoughtlessly but without intending a serious threat.”
The CMDRSM went from an initial seven members in January 2005 to 3,354 members by October 2007. Of those, only 15 percent had submitted proof of their ancestry, which means that 85 percent had simply signed a sworn statement affirming their “métis” identity. This continues to be a common practice among the largest post-Powley organizations in Québec.
By the time of the interviews in 2007, much of the leadership of the Organization for Territorial Fairness and the Association for White Rights had started to refer to themselves as “métis”—and, in the wake of the failure of several white rights groups to block the treaty negotiations, founded the CMDRSM.
After publishing about thirty books on regional history, the fur trade and the history of firearms in Québec, Russel-Aurore Bouchard became notorious across the province in 1995 with the publication of Les derniers des Montagnais (“The last of the Innu”). The self-published book, which received a cascade of negative reviews, nonetheless eventually led Bouchard to become the official historian of the “métis” movement in Québec.
Les derniers des Montagnais popularized what scholars generally refer to as the “disappearance thesis.” This thesis posits that the Innu had ceased being authentically Innu by the 1720s because of a sharp population decline brought on by several generations of epidemics that led to “race-mixing” with other Algonquin peoples and the French. According to Bouchard’s argument, today’s Innu are no more than a mixed-race facsimile of their ancestors.
Near the end of the book, Bouchard anticipates, in French, the central role that her work would play a decade later. “A particularly troubling observation that might serve to sharpen the cynicism among Canadians confronted with the latest land claim devised by contemporary Aboriginal leaders,” she wrote. “[C]ensus takers in 1845 already established that the Aboriginal population of Lower Canada was but a Métis ‘nation,’ as it was hardly possible to find a single pure-blooded Indian.” Today’s Indigenous peoples, Bouchard argued, were no longer “pure.” Taken to its logical conclusion, of course, this argument not only downplays Indigenous rights but also leaves the door open to the French-Québécois to claim territorial primacy in the province.
In a 2003 brief that she presented to the government commission tasked with mediating the conflict in the Saguenay-Lac-StJean and Côte-Nord regions, Bouchard’s historical narrative seemed suddenly to become more complex. For the first time in nearly thirty years of publishing histories about local events—and after developing social bonds with anti-Innu and white rights activists—she now argued for the presence of three regional “ethnicities”: “allochtones” (non-French immigrants who arrived after 1763), the Innu, and a new category, “Aboriginal French-Canadians.”
Within a year, the SCC had ruled on the Powley case and the social and political ground shifted again in the region. Shortly after the creation of the CMDRSM in January 2005, Bouchard self-published, with substantial financial support from the municipality of Saguenay, her first book on the history of the regional “métis” population. The book asserted that both the new “métis” and the Innu were mixed-race Indigenous peoples with the same Aboriginal rights, building on the argument in her 1995 book.
So important was her contribution to the CMDRSM that its“chief” praised Bouchard at the organization’s first two annual general meetings. In November 2005, Tremblay opened the plenary by acknowledging Bouchard’s intellectual contributions to the CMDRSM. At its second annual general meeting in October 2006 at a Chicoutimi hotel, Tremblay was even more effusive: “The chief highlights the titanic work done by Russel Bouchard, our link to the past, who in sixteen months has written three works that will contribute greatly to establishing the necessary proof for the existence of the historic community, for that community’s continuity to today, and for its distinctive métis culture.” This time, Tremblay was combative in his praise for Bouchard. “Russel, weapons in hand—her pen and her words—made it a duty to defend the [CMDRSM] in the media against anybody who attacked our credibility and legitimacy,” he said, speaking in French. “The chief encourages you to buy her books. It’s a duty for all Métis to know our history and to share it with our children.” Bouchard’s ideas have since spread to the broader self-indigenization movement in Québec.
While it may be tempting to dismiss Bouchard’s self-publishing, it is similar to a bigger body of scholarly literature that also emerged in the immediate aftermath of the Powley decision. Denis Gagnon, an anthropologist at the Université de Saint-Boniface in Winnipeg, inaugurated the sub-field, which supports the presence of distinct, rights-bearing “Eastern métis” communities, with two journal articles in the late aughts that proposed the origins of the Métis people outside of events in and around the Red River in Manitoba. According to his historical narrative, a subset of mixed-race people in what is now eastern Canada identified as “métis” before the establishment of the Métis nation in the prairies; in fact, he argues, it was some of the descendants of these people who moved west and founded the Métis nation. This theory opposes decades of historical research and Métis understandings of their own origins, but Gagnon’s publications offer little evidence to back it up.
Gagnon also critiques the very idea of Métis self-determination as an Indigenous people. “Applying the Red River Métis model to other Métis communities sets the bar so high that nothing else can be accepted, given the absence of archival documents,” Gagnon testified in French at the Senate Aboriginal Peoples Committee hearings on Métis Identity in 2012. “The experts are failing on every level and they arrogantly put up a wall of resistance, as if they were the truth bearers, without showing the slightest duty to validate their findings or an understanding towards the peoples in question. [...] This discourse is xenophobic, this fear of the other.” In a statement to Maisonneuve, Gagnon asserted that he was directing these comments towards the Attorney General of Québec, rather than members of the Métis nation. Even in making that distinction, however, he ignores the fact that the Métis themselves have developed a complex system of determining membership, charting a course for governments and courts to follow. After years of wide-ranging consultations, the Métis nation eventually adopted threepart membership criteria in 2002. They include provisions for welcoming individuals who have previously been disenfranchised.
Notably, Gagnon also supervised the research that led to the interviews with founding members of the CMDRSM, and many of his former students and collaborators not only contribute to the sub-field but act as expert witnesses for self-identified “métis” organizations in Quebec courts.
Though its academic housing lends it official weight, the sub-field Gagnon inaugurated remains mostly marginal and unknown to the burgeoning discipline of Indigenous Studies. Its authors mimic the “Eastern métis” movement in their failure to engage with Indigenous thinkers more broadly. (Gagnon says it’s a “difficult relationship,” and his attempts to engage were rebuffed, as the discipline “rejects all those who don’t share their opinion.”)
Instead of a dialogue with Indigenous peoples, the sub-field’s authors seem primarily concerned with setting out the terms for meeting the Powley Test in order to convince governments and the courts of the existence of the “Eastern métis.” So far, their efforts have proven fruitless. For instance, on July 18, 2018, the Québec Court of Appeal released its judgment in the Corneau case. Despite the CMDRSM’s decade-long effort to prove their Métis identity and its reliance on Gagnon’s research, the three-judge panel agreed: they failed to prove the existence of a historic Métis community in current-day Québec, and therefore were not considered Métis under the Powley Test. The CMDRSM say they will appeal.
“What emerges from this defence... is its remarkable creativity,” reads the commentary from the Québec Superior Court judge in Attorney General of Québec v. Royal Séguin (2016), which involves claims to a Métis identity by a group called the Communauté Métis autochtone de Maniwaki (CMAM). “It would be easier to ‘nail Jell-O to a wall,’” wrote the judge, “than to locate the ins and outs of the remarkably vague and elusive allegations that one finds about the existence of a Métis community.”
Of the 2,011 individual genealogies the CMAM submitted for its case (from their six thousand members), an incredible 75 percent registered a root ancestor born in the 1600s —usually as the sole basis for their claim to a so-called Métis identity today. Even more remarkably, about 25 percent listed an “Indigenous” root ancestor who, by scholarly consensus, wasn’t even Indigenous. At least five hundred members without any actual Indigenous ancestry have been granted membership by the CMAM, according to the records that it presented in court.
The CMDRSM’s membership policies betray similarly questionable claims to indigeneity. In its court submission for the Corneau case, the CMDRSM included membership records for the twenty-seven defendants. Like in the CMAM case, nearly 70 percent of them counted an Indigenous ancestor born in the 1600s as the sole basis for their claim to indigeneity, and about 15 percent had absolutely no Indigenous ancestry at all. In the case of the MNRS, its “grand chief ” stubbornly defended the organization’s policy to include a French woman as an Indigenous root ancestor during his testimony in the Parent case in October 2016. In his answer to the federal prosecutor’s question about why he was discussing information about a specific MNRS root ancestor in an unprompted manner, Lavoie explained: “It’s because [Françoise Grenier, married in 1634] is very contested by a lot of people who say that that she’s not Métis, but we have documents from the period that say that there were no European women on the territory.” Lavoie’s statement is plainly at odds with my own genealogical research; I trace my ancestry back to at least half a dozen other French women in the St. Lawrence valley as of 1634—in addition to Grenier, who appears four different times in my family tree. When she was cited in another court as an Indigenous ancestor, that court found that there was no solid evidence of her indigeneity.
Though the somewhat unique genealogical makeup of Québec means that most descendants of its first settlers count at least one Indigenous ancestor, the fact is, as Bertrand Desjardins, the long-time director of the University of Montreal’s Research Program in Historical Demography has written, the vast majority of French Québécois have only the tiniest amount, if any, of this ancestry. French settlers were much more likely to marry and have children with other Europeans, and the descendants of the earliest French settlers in New France are still likely to find five times more non-French European ancestry than Indigenous ancestry in their family tree.
Some members of the new “métis” groups said those very distant ancestors—and how long ago they lived—is not something they try to hide, but is rather their biggest inconvenience. Claude Pineault, for example, said “Eastern métis” groups’ claims are rejected simply because the region saw white settlers, and intermarriage, much earlier than did western Canada, at the Red River, where settlers arrived more recently. The Côte-Nord had settlers long before government created reserves or other forms of segregation for Indigenous people, says Pineault. “Of course we were living side by side. Our reserves were our villages, and Indians and whites lived together and married each other,” he says. (Though intermarriage did occur in Quebec, an analysis of the genealogical records the CMDRSM provided for the Corneau case shows that none of these members claim a mixed-race marriage occurring prior to the establishment of a community at Red River.)
Pineault also knows that the Red River Métis call themselves Canada’s only Métis. “That’s their right, and I don’t know their history,” he wrote in an email. “I prefer to speak of what I do know, the Côte-Nord... visit Tadoussac, the old chapel of 1747, and know that intermarriage on the Côte-Nord and in Charlevoix didn’t happen yesterday!”
As to the idea that their movements were born out of white rights and anti-Indigenous activism, Pineault and “Eastern métis,” from various groups, dismiss the accusation. “It’s completely wrong and outlandish,” LeBlanc told Maisonneuve, echoing what several other self-proclaimed “métis” leaders told Maisonneuve.
A public controversy erupted in March 2018 on social media when several “Eastern métis” organizations were accused of encouraging their members to use membership cards fraudulently to receive sales tax breaks. A follow-up investigation by CBC reported that the largest “Acadian-métis” organization in Nova Scotia—the Eastern Woodlands Métis Nation, based in Yarmouth—had included statements about members receiving tax breaks for vehicles, lawnmowers and fuel in meeting minutes from 2016 posted on their website. Interviewed by the CBC in June 2018, the organization’s “grand chief,” Mary Lou Parker, expressed her support for the practice. The Mi’kmaq Rights Initiative, which represents the thirteen Mi’kmaw communities in Nova Scotia, as well as a range of Mi’kmaw activists and intellectuals, have insisted that the Mi’kmaq are the only rights-bearing Indigenous people in Nova Scotia.
Though self-indigenization and the development of “Eastern métis” organizations is most prominent in Québec, French descendants in places as diverse as Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Maine also allow the use of seventeenth-century ancestors to establish membership in a range of organizations working under a “métis” banner. In New Hampshire, Vermont, and Québec, similar policies have been used to claim an “Abenaki” identity.
Over twenty-three thousand people (or about 2.5 percent of the population) in Nova Scotia identified as Métis in the 2016 Canadian Census, while only 860 (or 0.09 percent) did so in 1996. To go along with these skyrocketing figures, the province is now home to no less than eight organizations representing so-called “Acadian-métis” individuals, many of whom rely principally on 325to 375-year-old ancestry to claim Aboriginal rights under the Constitution. The two Powley cases that have made it to court in Nova Scotia—Babin in 2012 and Hatfield in 2015—were both dismissed because the plaintiffs were judged not to belong to a Métis community.
While the Powley decision has been a central driver of self-indigenization in Eastern Canada, the decision itself puts these organizations at odds with the criteria it developed to establish Métis identity: long-ago Indigenous ancestry simply does not suffice as evidence of a distinct Métis community today.
My own genealogy is a case in point. With the help of a professional genealogist, I traced all of my ancestors back to the early 1600s, identifying just over 1,200 root ancestors born primarily in the 1600s. The results were as follows: 92.3 percent French, 2.8 percent Acadian, 2.1 percent English, 2.3 percent other European (German, Belgian, Swiss, Irish), and 0.4 percent Indigenous (Algonquin and Mohawk). Even at 0.4 percent Indigenous ancestry, I count more Indigenous ancestors (three Algonquin women born prior to 1660 and two Mohawk adoptees born prior to 1700) than 75 percent of the over two thousand individuals whose membership records I have consulted in Québec.
Despite the fact that I could register with my choice of the post-Powley “métis” organizations in Québec (or Ontario, or Nova Scotia, or New Brunswick), I continue to identify as French-Canadian, in keeping with my social and cultural upbringing and as a way to support Indigenous self-determination and sovereignty. The kinship-based forms of belonging developed over generations by actual Indigenous peoples—including, but not limited to, the Métis people of the prairies—clearly illustrate that there is much more to Indigenous identity than a distant ancestor.
With files from Max Binks-Collier.