How I tried and failed to be Métis

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August 9, 2017

How I tried and failed to be Métis

By Melanie Paradis for The Globe and Mail. Click here to read the original.

In my early 20s, I worked for the Métis Nation of Ontario. I became deeply invested in the fight for Métis rights and fell in love with the culture and people. Like Canadian author Joseph Boyden, I wanted desperately to belong.

I was encouraged to do genealogical research to see if my ancestry, steeped in the lore of great-grandmamas who looked Indigenous, would provide a Métis connection. Surely, somewhere in the nearly 400 years of family history in Canada, there was an Indigenous ancestor? Surely, this draw I felt to the Métis must mean I belonged to them, like some long-lost cousin home at last?

During my months of research, I found out all sorts of interesting things. I can trace my roots back to some of the earliest ships. I can also trace my roots back to the filles du roi, or “daughters of the king,” who were poor French girls sent to populate New France. Records indicate they did quite a good job.

I also came to a lot of dead ends, often with women of a single name who are, for now, untraceable. Add to this the confusion of church records rife with misspellings, or purposeful new spellings of names from hundreds of years ago.

One story underscores how confusing this can be.

A colony was allegedly raided by an Indigenous band early in the 17th century, and white children were taken. Two of these white children were raised by the Indigenous band and given Indigenous names. They marry each other and give their children Indigenous names. French priests later give them all French names in the records, but they are neither Indigenous nor French. They are still British colonizers, regardless of their circumstances. Nevertheless, stories such as these muddy the waters of family history passed down through generations.

It is entirely possible that I have some Indigenous ancestry. But it would be very long ago and far away, a connection tenuous at best. So, despite my deep desire to belong and complete the family rumour and speculation about our possible Indigenous ties, I never applied for membership to the Métis Nation of Ontario.

But I have made mistakes like Joseph Boyden’s. Early on, when colleagues made assumptions that I was Métis because I worked for them, I was not quick enough to correct them. Eventually, I would supply that I had mixed ancestry but was not Métis. Now, I just say my family has been here for 400 years, it’s complicated, but not rights-bearing.

As a green-and-keen twentysomething, I wanted to be the voice for the voiceless. In retrospect, that was endearing, but naive. I was assuming Indigenous people didn’t have a voice. As I gained more experience in the communities, I came to realize how ridiculous this was. I am still embarrassed.

Marrying a status Indian man and helping to raise his status Indian children, who now both study Indigenous rights in university, put this in even deeper perspective.

I know I did good things in my work with Indigenous communities, but I am now acutely aware of that which I did not know then. In my quest to “be the voice,” I had hogged the microphone in moments when I should have shut up and listened. I don’t know what reconciliation will look like, but it will sound like authentic Indigenous voices being listened to and respected by non-Indigenous ears.

The Boyden debate has brought up a lot of these emotions for me. I love the greater Indigenous community. And I have felt loved in return by them. But that love means respecting them and their rights too much to masquerade as one of them or attempt to dilute their strength of claim with my own rather dubious origin.

Instead, I have come to terms with my whiteness. I determined that I can love Indigenous communities, fight alongside them for their rights, feel a deep connection to the wilderness of Canada and be recharged by the waters of our north as my family has for centuries. And I can do all that without having to claim a culture that isn’t mine. I can do that by simply being myself. Because I am enough. So is Joseph Boyden, if he would only let it be so.