Register Monday | December 17 | 2018

The Postscript: Darryl Leroux speaks to Zoe Todd about researching race-shifting

In his Fall 2018 story "Self-made métis," Darryl Leroux searched for the roots of a growing group in Quebec: tens of thousands of people who used to identify publicly as white but who now want to be recognized as "métis," saying they have long-ago Indigenous ancestry. Leroux showed that this movement, in fact, grew largely out of opposition to Indigenous communities in Quebec. Here, he speaks to scholar Zoe Todd, who belongs to the historical Métis community of the Red River, about his work and the reaction to it.

Zoe Todd: As a Métis woman, one thing I've been really concerned about is the efforts to shut you down. And I was wondering if you're willing to talk about what you've been going through and how you're navigating that.

Darryl Leroux: I think my strategy has been sharing the raw data I’ve collected. All the stuff that I have, I've shared. It often builds support that insulates me against some of the more extreme efforts to silence me, to cancel events that I'm involved in. This Maisonneuve piece was one opportunity to get something out there that's available freely. You don't have to pay a journal fee or be a university student or something like that.

 But also, I've just tried as much as I can to openly discuss the complexities involved in my research, and to position myself in those complexities as transparently I can. I'm not innocent in the relations that I'm studying.

ZTWhat brought you to doing this research?

DL: I did a B.A. in Indigenous Studies, and at some point I decided that what I wanted to do in my life is really try to understand the role that my people, my ancestors, played in colonialism. My first academic research was on the ways racism and colonialism get expressed in French Canada—not just in Quebec, but more broadly, what I call French descendants. I noticed—one case I was studying was the commemoration of Quebec's four-hundredth anniversary—that this story was being told where the Québecois became Indigenous. It was a serious misrepresentation, in theatre, even in some museum exhibits.

I was really intrigued that there was this movement towards indigenizing French descendants. So I've been tracking that off and on since 2008, and I started to turn especially to these new quote-unquote “métis” organizations formed in Quebec. That's when I connected with a scholar, Adam Gaudry, who was doing similar work but in Nova Scotia. We started comparing notes and things took off from there, because it is quite a large phenomenon. Way more than I had imagined.

ZTYou've shown the unprecedented scale of this explosion in white settlers self-indigenizing, or the term you've also been using is “race-shifting.” I was wondering if you could give a little bit of a snapshot of that.

DL: If we do it province by province, and then the few states in New England where this is also happening, it’s in the range of 200,000 people in the past half-generation, at most fifteen years. It’s almost always this reimagined quote-unquote "métis" identity, but in some cases it could be different—like in New England, it's usually what's called an “Abenaki” identity. I’ve calculated that between forty and fifty organizations have popped up.

And if you look at the overall number of French descendants, that's really a small minority. There’s a lot of space for this movement to grow, and it has been growing, particularly in the past five years, with a number of different court decisions. So I think it’s really important to speak out against it, because it's the type of thing that has been catching fire in certain places and it is really impacting Indigenous people all over the Northeast.

ZTCan you give us a bit of a sense of some of the immediate land claim issues that are being impacted by this incredible jump in French descendants claiming to now be Indigenous?

DL: What I track in the Maisonneuve article is two specific organizations that were formed in two regions of Quebec at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, on the north and south sides. These two movements started out as white folks opposed to Indigenous claims—in one case, a formal comprehensive land claim in Innu territory, and then the other case, in Mi'kmaq territory, a territorial agreement.

In both cases there's this opposition to Indigenous peoples claiming land-based rights, and in both cases this new "métis" identity is mobilized to put a stop to those claims. And the actors involved at the time actually are quite open about this, in interviews and in other public documents that I've been able to uncover. They don't say the same today, right? It's difficult for people to own up to the fact that that's how they came about in the past. But if you look at the documents from the period, it's pretty straightforward.

ZTWhat I find really interesting with the timing of your article is that in the last few years we've seen the number of hate crimes in the US increase significantly, and the resurgence of white nationalism and white supremacy in America. And the FBI just declared the Proud Boys to be an extremist group. I'm wondering if you could speak a little bit to, you know—why does it matter that, right now, there are French descendant white settlers who are reimagining themselves as Indigenous who have ties to these “white [rights]” organizations?

DL: The movement north of the Saint Lawrence that I just discussed, in Innu territory—if we look at the time period of the movement against the Innu, there were many reports of actual violence rising in the region against Innu youth, particularly in schools and in cities. So this sort of discourse that they're promoting does literally lead to all kinds of forms of violence on the ground that I think are simply just not forgivable. There's just no place for it.

And they've managed in many ways to mask their original intentions, so that a lot of institutions actually accept their claims to being Indigenous people. In fact, that organization in Innu territory, they had one of their members recently apply to a scholarship at the University of Alberta as a quote-unquote "métis" person. And if institutions aren't aware of the origins of the organizations and whether or not they're legitimately recognized, then, you know, they're likely to just accept those claims at face value, which will harm Indigenous people in a different way. Right?

ZTRight. I think one of the most perverse things I've experienced as a white-coded Métis woman from the Prairies is the use of the Métis Nation as a cover for many of these explicitly racist, white supremacist beliefs. That can create incredibly dangerous situations for marginalized and racialized students within the academy. Because if someone is claiming that they are Métis and they are, you know, an "eastern métis" person and being taken seriously—I'm using scare quotes, you can't see me—something that I find quite terrifying is that the institution, then, is often complicit in protecting individuals who may have incredibly anti-Indigenous and anti-Black and Islamophobic views. I'm speaking hypothetically, of course. But institutions are going to have to think long and hard about how they play a part in these conversations about indigeneity, precisely because indigeneity is being used as a cover.

This is one of the things I find really important about your work, is that you're laying that bare. I think a lot of people were sort of trying to put their finger on it that—you know, it felt wrong, it felt violent. But then you were able to connect the dots.

DL: One of the things that I hear from the so-called “eastern métis” leaders—the people you were talking about earlier, who attack me personally, who try to get my presentations and work shut down—is that, you know, not everybody involved in this movement is racist. They’re saying I'm taking extreme examples and making a claim about the entire movement.

First of all: call out those people who are the extremists. If you're actually acknowledging it, why not do that? But I never see that happen.

ZTYeah.

DL: But more importantly, I want to flip that on its head, because I don't actually think it's, you know, a few rotten apples. I'm talking about the people who founded these organizations and mobilized people to join them according to these ideologies, anti-Indigenous ideologies. I'm talking about the two most important organizations in Quebec that have the most developed court cases—one that's just asked to be heard at the Supreme Court. And it actually was given money by the government to do research to support their claim.

If you're part of one of these organizations, it's up to you to make clear what's going on. It's up to you to actually speak out about what these organizations are doing, the rhetoric that they use. The so-called chiefs have changed their discourse now that they're in the spotlight more. These are easy documents to get—this is stuff that was in the media a long time ago, and you can find it with a real easy internet search, some of it. So I would push those who are surprised that this is happening, or who feel that they’re somehow innocent but want to claim to be "eastern metis," that unless you actually try to undo the harm that's been done through this movement, then you're a part of it.

ZT: It's really interesting, because there is a lot of victimry that is mobilized in some of these discourses, and it has been very difficult to engage with as a Red River Métis person. Those organizations have at times been able to position themselves as the champions of the most disenfranchised in Indigenous spaces. One thing that I've found quite upsetting is that they tend to co-opt the narrative of the Sixties Scoop and the deliberate severing of kinship relations by the state and the Church and other actors.

I think you've touched on it with this, urging people to take responsibility for the white supremacists in their midst. But do you have advice for ways we can work through these conversations in a way so that those who've been really harmed by the state over many generations, their narratives don't get co-opted by these folks?

DL: It's always been my concern that when I'm talking about this movement, that I'm clear that I don't in any way consider those who have been disconnected from their kin by the Canadian state and individual Canadian citizens over the past 150 years. My concern is with French descendants who are claiming an ancestor in the 1600s as the sole basis for their shift into an Indigenous identity. And these people are not Indigenous. I'm one of those people, and that's pretty much uncontroversial among Indigenous scholars: when it comes to how one defines indigeneity, blood quantum is not it.

I think that there needs to be a public accounting of these organizations—that institutions have them on record, and media have them on record, so they know which organizations simply are not legitimate. There's an acknowledgement there that they're actually bringing harm to Indigenous people, including those who are trying to reconnect with family.

ZTI want to take the opportunity to say kinanâskomitin and thank you. I really have appreciated the opportunity to see the amount of sort of empirical data you're working with and your commitment to an ethical orientation towards this work that is really helping First Nations Métis.

DL: I've learned a lot from you and I hope that I can continue!