It was 1948 when her father told her. He was laying on the chesterfield in the living room of their Yarmouth, N.S., home, his body ravaged by tuberculosis.
“He had consumption and he knew he only had a few months to live,” recalls Mary Lou Parker. “He told me we had Indian blood in us, which made us Metis.”
The 12-year-old felt proud of her Indigenous roots. But she was warned never to reveal her “half-breed” heritage, as it was then called, for fear of being shunned.
So she kept it secret until years later, in a quest to explore her identity and gain recognition, she formed the Eastern Woodland Metis Nation Nova Scotia, using a term – Metis – usually associated with Western Canada.
Parker has since discovered there are many more people like her in Eastern Canada.
Her group – one of many eastern Metis groups to emerge in recent years – has grown exponentially, and now has 30,000 members.
But the sudden proliferation of self-reported Metis in Eastern Canada has emerged as a profoundly divisive debate.
Census data show the number of people who call themselves Metis soared nearly 150 per cent in Quebec and 125 per cent in Nova Scotia from 2006 to 2016, according to Statistics Canada. Dozens of new Metis organizations cropped up over the same period.
Many use identity cards that look much like Indian Status cards. Others have tried to claim Indigenous rights through the courts, fuelling a perception that the aboriginal newcomers are so-called rights grabbers.
“It’s one thing to say ‘I’m First Nation, this is part of my culture and I want to learn more about it,”‘ says Cheryl Maloney, a Mi’kmaw activist and Cape Breton University political science professor.
“But that’s not what they’re saying. They’re trying to be viewed as Metis under the Constitution, and to have rights and benefits.”
Many critics reject outright that there is a distinct Metis identity in the Maritimes and Quebec.
People of mixed blood in the region either integrated into Indigenous communities or assimilated with European newcomers, unlike the distinct Metis People of Louis Riel in Western Canada.
“When you’re looking at the Maritimes and Quebec, the children of intermarriage were accepted by either party, in our case the Mi’kmaq or the Acadian,” Mi’kmaw elder and historian Daniel Paul says.
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For those who consider themselves eastern Metis, the rejection of their identity is exclusionary and mean-spirited – a continuation of their oppressed status and the maltreatment mixed-raced people have faced for generations.
They argue that a distinct mixed-heritage people existed in the region with a shared history and culture, not simply Indigenous ancestry. But these interracial people were compelled to identify as white for fear of discrimination.
“We were forced to assimilate with white people, our identities stolen,” says Parker, the grand chief of the Eastern Woodland Metis. “Now we’re reclaiming our native heritage.”
The 82-year-old says she’s not looking for benefits – just recognition and inclusion.
“We’re not begging for money … we’re not after government hand outs,” she says. “We know who we are, we just want the recognition.”
For the Mi’kmaq people who have made significant sacrifices fighting for treaty rights, though, it’s troubling. They say Indigenous Peoples suffered enormously from efforts to assimilate them. This includes the Residential School system – what one federal bureaucrat called the “final solution to the Indian Problem.”
“We’ve gone through hell and back over the last many years with government and settlers,” says Allison Bernard, fisheries co-ordinator with the Mi’kmaq Rights Initiative from Eskasoni First Nation in Cape Breton.
Skepticism of self-reported Metis in the region is understandable given the experience of Indigenous people here, he says, pointing out that he was forced to defend his right to hunt in court after shooting a moose.
“Throughout history we resisted colonization and spoke out about the horrors against Indigenous Peoples,” says Jarvis Googoo, a non-practising lawyer in Halifax and a Mi’kmaw from We’koqma’q First Nation.
A matter of survival
Yet hiding Indigenous heritage was a matter of survival, says Karole Dumont, chief of the Council of the First Metis People of Canada.
“If you could pass off as white you did,” she says. “Being Indian or Metis was dirty and it was taboo.”
Metis families “hid in plain sight,” Dumont says, and while they didn’t “advertise” their Indigenous roots, they continued living as Metis in secret.
“Our grandparents and great-grandparents did whatever they had to do to ensure that none of their kids ended up in residential schools.”
The debate over the eastern Metis movement was thrust into the spotlight earlier this year when the East Coast Music Association pulled a Nova Scotia nominee from consideration for an Indigenous artist award.
At issue was the heritage of Cape Breton guitarist Maxim Cormier, who identifies as Acadian and Metis. His name was withdrawn from the Indigenous artist of the year category after questions surfaced about his background.
Dumont says revoking the nomination was “reckless and unfair.”
“The Metis people are the only people who have to lay out their pedigree and prove their identity in Canada.”
But Googoo says jobs, education and awards programs geared towards Indigenous Peoples are an important piece of reconciliation. He says having newly identified Metis flood those programs is a step backwards.
“It’s worsening the problem because these organizations think they’re doing their part for reconciliation.”
The nomination controversy is a microcosm of the maelstrom of debate surrounding the Eastern Metis.
American anthropologist Circe Sturm uses the term “race shifting” to describe white Americans identifying as Cherokee to “reclaim or create something they feel they have lost” or “opt out of mainstream white society.”
Darryl Leroux, associate professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, draws parallels between the new Cherokee communities in the U.S. and Metis groups in Eastern Canada.
He questions whether having “an ancestor from the 1600s makes one Indigenous today,” especially when there are no cultural or historical attachments to the Aboriginal ancestry.
Leroux points out that his own genealogy includes Mohawk and Algonquin ancestors, but that doesn’t make him Indigenous, he says. Yet some of his relatives are claiming to be Metis – creating a rift in his family.
“Often there’s only one person in a family claiming Metis identity,” he says. “Even their kin are not on board with what they’re doing.”
In a journal article he co-wrote with Alberta academic Adam Gaudry, “White Settler Revision and Making Metis Everywhere,” Leroux identifies a “tactical use of long-ago racial mixing to re-imagine a ‘Metis’ identity.”
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Leroux notes the spikes in self-identified Metis populations followed court decisions recognizing treaty rights.
While fewer than a thousand Nova Scotians identified as Metis in the 1996 census, that number more than tripled to 3,135 after the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed Mi’kmaq treaty rights in the 1999 Marshall decision, according to Statistics Canada.
The population swelled again after the 2003 Powley decision, when the Supreme Court affirmed Metis have an Aboriginal right to hunt for food.
By the 2006 census, self-identified Metis in Nova Scotia had once again more than doubled, reaching 23,315 by 2016. The increase mirrors a similar trend in New Brunswick and Quebec.
“It cannot be a coincidence that it shifts following court decisions,” says Leroux, who cites evidence that some of the people now identifying as Metis were initially opposed to Indigenous treaty rights and even had ties to white supremacist groups.
Jean Teillet, lead counsel in the landmark Powley case, is the great-grandniece of Louis Riel and one of the country’s top Metis and First Nations rights lawyers.
Her argument – which the highest court in the land ultimately adopted – was that a rights-bearing Metis community must prove more than a genealogical connection to an Indigenous ancestor. The Metis Nation out west, for example, has an origin story, a name, kinship ties, language, traditions, symbols, territory and culture such as music, dance and food.
“This is not just about individuals who have what I call an ever-so-great Indian grandmama,” she says. “This is a historical people that came into being before Canada asserted itself on their territory.”
Teillet says the Metis claims of Eastern Canada appear to hinge on one key marker of membership – a genealogical connection – without any other evidence.
“Sometimes these people in Eastern Canada rest their entire claim on a 400-year-old connection to one First Nations woman,” she says. “There is nothing more there.”
Around 20 court cases have been launched by self-reported Metis in the region claiming Aboriginal rights. Each of them has failed, Teillet says.
In one decision, a judge said it would be “easier to nail Jell-O to the wall” than find evidence to support the claim, she says.
But some researchers studying the phenomenon argue that there is empirical and archival evidence that supports the existence of eastern Metis.
Daphne Williamson, an aboriginal lawyer who works with the Nova Scotia Wampanoag community and Acadian Metis groups in the province, says the community didn’t disappear – it was disrupted and dispersed during the Acadian Expulsion.
Still, she argues that their identity, language, culture and sense of community persist to the present day.
Sebastien Malette, assistant professor at Carleton University, says genealogical data shows southwest Nova Scotia had three communities: First Nations people, “pure blood” Acadian settlers, and the “sang-meles,” or mixed blood.
“The so-called pure Acadians of white descent didn’t want to marry the Acadians with Indian blood,” so a Metis people distinctive from the Acadian and the Mi’kmaq formed, Malette says.
“There can be an invisible community due to stigma,” he says. “They have a long history of being stigmatized due to their heritage and being told they don’t exist.”
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Malette admits some eastern Metis may be motivated by hunting and fishing treaty rights. But he said the constitution of certain Metis groups have the stated objective of not interfering with Mi’kmaq rights.
“I certainly can’t vouch for everyone,” he says.
“But there are many Metis who feel aligned with their Mi’kmaq roots and feel a friendship and a closeness to the First Nations and just want their identity recognized.”
Some of the Metis groups, though, have issued membership cards that look like Indian Status cards and are using them to receive benefits.
It’s a problem Metis activists acknowledge. But they argue it’s an isolated issue that doesn’t represent the vast majority of eastern Metis.
“People see the newly identified Metis as trying to cash in on a distant ancestry, but that’s wrong,” says Christian Boudreau, a director of l’Association des Acadiens-Metis Souriquois. “I don’t agree with taking any benefits away from the Mi’kmaq.”
The federal government says it’s aware of concerns with the cards, and has received a number of inquiries on the issue.
“While these cards convey membership to an organization, they do not confer Indian Status, nor do they confer rights and benefits linked explicitly to Indian status,” Stephanie Palma, spokeswoman for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, said in an email.
“The government takes allegations and complaints related to the misuse of Indian Status cards very seriously.”