Metis of Western Canada - Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The preeminence of the active older male has been a hallmark of Metis behavior since the era of the free man. By the same token, women were of critical importance not only for their social links with Indian bands but for their essential skills in preparing surplus amounts of provision and pelts for trade. As neither the Roman Catholic church nor the women themselves approved of polygyny, the importance of women who exercised these skills in the family was enhanced. The elderly who were capable, as well as children of both sexes, were expected to lend a hand at critical times in the production of provisions and robes. With the collapse of both the provision and the robe trade, men attempted to sustain their position by working as freighters, teamsters, and day laborers. This adaptability allowed some men to continue their leading position, but in other families it was the woman and her kinsmen who became preeminent. This latter development may explain in part why in some Metis communities an emphasis is placed upon "Indian," as opposed to "European-Canadian," traditions in acknowledging their heritage. Today, however, numbers of men as well as women demonstrate assertive entrepreneurial abilities in the many small businesses they have established. They are emerging as a social elite of political consequence.

Political Organization. Family units were the political entity except for the temporary "government" of the bison hunt and the wintering village. In the selection of the temporary chef and other officers, an interplay of ability, social reputation, and family connections seem to explain choices. Not to go unnoticed is the similarity between the conduct of the bison hunt and that of the militia in New France and Lower Canada. In the Red River Settlement, the Metis appear to have remained apart from the Hudson's Bay Company-appointed Council of Assiniboia and the local courts. After 1850, however, members of their community were found on both bodies. With the transfer and the establishment of Riel's provisional government, Metis were involved on both sides in the resulting political conflict. By the end of the decade of the 1870s, the Canadians had largely displaced them in the governments of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories. Farther west, Roman Catholic missionaries encouraged local government activism. But the independence of families outside of the hunt seems to have remained an enduring political tradition. Following the Saskatchewan Rebellion of 1885, the Metis appear to have abandoned political activity until the 1930s. The formation of the Metis Association of Alberta to lobby for government action in their interests was mirrored in other jurisdictions with Metis populations. With the post-World War II era, numbers of organizations, sometimes competing, have emerged at both the national and regional level. Family connections are not without importance in many organizations. Yet, increasingly, it is the successful hunter and trader in relations with government who wins elections at the local level. Women as well as men are active in these organizations.

Conflict. In the fur trade, fighting among the men was sanctioned only on occasions such as a boisson or régale (celebration), not at work. Among les gens libres, such fights could prove far more disruptive. As a result, avoidance seems to have been the means of resolving disputes involving those other than young men. On the hunt, social pressure demanded that conflict be avoided. Violent clashes did occur with the Dakota and Blackfoot. The Metis, however, would observe Indian practice in relations with Indians in invoking the pipe ceremony and in offering and receiving gift compensation. Among themselves, these practices are not evident. The entrepreneurial success of particular extended families demarked social and political consequences. Such families were valued in forming marriage alliances. In the Red River in 1869-1870, and later in the Saskatchewan Rebellion, some evidence suggests antagonism between the entrepreneurially successful and those who saw themselves excluded from opportunity in the settled West. Some suggest that this pattern, redefined generationally, has continued to this day. There are tensions as well between those Metis who identify a heritage very closely with past practices in association with the Roman Catholic church and those who argue for a much stronger aboriginal component and in some instances a rejection of European-Canadian elements.

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