Metis of Western Canada - Orientation

Identification. Scholars use metis, originally a French term meaning "mixed," to designate individuals and communities who identify their ancestors with historical fur trade communities. These metis communities were distinct from indigenous Indian bands and from the trading posts. Some of these communities used "Metis" (pronounced May-tees) to identify themselves. In recent years native peoples of other origins have chosen to apply the term to themselves. Patrilineally, the Metis acknowledge ethnic origins such as French-Canadian, Highland Scot, Orcadian, and English, among others. Equally important for the Metis of the West were "Eastern Indians" including some Iroquois peoples and vari-ous Ojibwa peoples, including the Nipissings, Ottawas, and Saulteaux. Matrilineally, the Metis look to indigenous Indian bands; largely Ojibwa in the region of the upper Great Lakes, largely Cree on the northern plains and the southern regions of the boreal forest, and largely Dene down the valleys of the Mackenzie River system to the Arctic Ocean. Individuals of mixed European and Indian ancestry who identify with, and are accepted by, Indian bands are viewed as Indians, not Metis.

Location. The Great Lakes Metis appeared in the region of the upper Great Lakes in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. A century later, with their dispersal in the face of American settlement, individuals and families journeyed westward to the Missouri River and to the Red River of the North and beyond. By 1800, Plains Metis were emerging in the valleys of the Athabaska, North Saskatchewan, Assiniboine, and Red rivers. Over the next half-century they extended their presence southward toward the Missouri River and westward to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Today the largest concentration of Metis families and communities is found in the parkland and boreal forest regions of Canada, particularly the prairie provinces, the Northwest Territories, and northern Ontario.

Demography. Before the demise of the buffalo, the Plains Metis were doubling their numbers every twenty years. By the third quarter of the nineteenth century, Louis Riel, the noted Metis leader, estimated the Metis population of the West at 10,000 to 12,000. At the same time in the Red River Settlement, metis peoples numbered 10,000 to 11,000. Of this number, over 50 percent could be identified as Metis. While the bulk of the Metis traced their origins to the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes fur trade tradition, with its familiarity with the French language and Roman Catholicism, another group of metis people traced their origins to the Hudson Bay fur trade tradition and its familiarity with the English language and Protestantism. These people did not term themselves Metis. They were known variously as "Hudson Bay English," "Country-born," "Red River Halfbreed," and, by some writers, "English metis." They were concentrated in the area of the Red River Settlement and in the valley of the North Saskatchewan River. In latter years, many were absorbed into the settler society. The 1981 census places the metis population in Canada at 98,260, one-quarter of the Indian population. The majority are found in the provinces of Manitoba (20,485), Saskatchewan (17,455), and Alberta (27,135). Many of these metis would identify themselves as Metis.

Linguistic Affiliation. In the nineteenth century, most Metis grew to maturity speaking either Cree or Saulteaux, the language of their mothers. It was the language of the bush as well. Males particularly learned French as a language of "work." Under the influence of Roman Catholic missionaries, French became the language of the community for those families settled near permanent missions. With the advent of settlement at the end of the nineteenth century, English became the language of "business" (outsiders). Until recently, many Metis were trilingual. Today, renewed interest in speaking "better" Cree or Saulteaux accompanies the use of English. In a few communities, Michif, a language with a Cree and Saulteaux structure and grammar, together with Cree or Saulteaux and French terms, is encountered.

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