Christopher Adams, Gregg Dahl and Ian Peach (Eds.), Metis in Canada: History, Identity, Law & Politics

By DeCosse, Joanne | Manitoba History, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Christopher Adams, Gregg Dahl and Ian Peach (Eds.), Metis in Canada: History, Identity, Law & Politics


DeCosse, Joanne, Manitoba History


Christopher Adams, Gregg Dahl and Ian Peach (eds.), Metis in Canada: History, Identity, Law & Politics. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2013, 530 pages.. ISBN 978-0-88864-640-8, $65.00 (paperback)

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In 2003, the Powley decision from the Supreme Court of Canada laid out what became known as "the Powley Test," a set of criteria defining what it means to be rights-bearing "Metis." In order to be recognized, Metis groups no longer need ties to Rupert's Land, or to the Red River Settlement with its particular brand of nationalism that culminated in Louis Riel's 1869 provisional government. Instead, Metis groups are designated based on substantive circumstances and require evidence of existence as historically dynamic and distinctive communities. These legal developments have had a great impact on Metis scholarship, spawning discussions about their implications for Metis rights, how the lines are drawn around "Metis" and what the label means politically, socially and legally.

These emerging conversations about legal classification led to the compilation of twelve essays by editors Christopher Adams, Gregg Dahl and Ian Peach. Metis in Canada: History, Identity, Law & Politics, aptly described as a "forum" by its editors, combines the works of many scholars, several of whom are newcomers to Metis studies, and offers readers an assemblage of fresh, innovative perspectives. The interdisciplinary collection includes papers by scholars of fields including history, art history, sociology, political science and legal studies, enabling it to express and promote dialogue between academics often divided by disciplinary boundaries.

As a whole, the collection tackles--and problematizes --the question: Who is Metis? The complexities of the category "Metis" (or sometimes "metis," or even "Metis") is reflected throughout the book. The authors do not share the same terminologies or theoretical frameworks and are careful to define their terms. Effectively, this linguistic diversity demonstrates that the very notion of stable identity--and stable labels--remains contested. Significantly, the authors frequently disagree with each other, continually emphasizing that "being Metis in Canada cannot be captured by a homogeneous set of rules and descriptions [but a] modality accompanied by diverse histories, identities, laws and political dynamics" (p. xviii).

The book's essays are organized into four sections: Identity, History, Law, and Politics. The first section, "Identity," includes material dealing with personal and perceived Metis identities. Gloria Bell starts off the collection with her discussion of historical artistic depictions of Metis peoples in the Great Lakes region. She examines paintings both as evidence of self-representation, via clothes and jewellery, as well as colonial depictions for non-Aboriginal audiences, pointing out the importance of who tells a story and for whom it is told. Laura-Lee Kearns explores feminine Metis identity in her poem, which deals with personal family history and accentuates the fluidity and diversity of Metis experiences. Finally, Gregg Dahl takes on some of the issues surrounding Metis labels. He traces the development of the term "half-breed" with which he proudly defines his own identity in order to "honour [his] relations' acceptance of that label" (p. 94) as English-speakers in the Red River Settlement, and because it reflects his pride in the Constitutional recognition of the term. Effectively, the section expresses the complexities of Metis identity in personal and scholarly ways, accentuating their overlap.

Essays in the "History" portion of Metis in Canada emphasize that politics have always affected how and when Metis peoples have been written about. In this vein, Darren O'Toole examines revisionist, historical narratives about Metis identity formation. He compares differing approaches and their consideration of class and occupational niches (namely fur-trade work for the North West Company), concluding that institutional structures and practices played an important, although inadequately addressed, role in the development of Metis collectivity. …

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