"What Is the Proper Word for People like You?": The Question of Metis Identity In: In Search of April Raintree
Smulders, Sharon, English Studies in Canada
BEATRICE MOSIONIER (formerly Culleton) has said that while writing her landmark novel, In Search of April Raintree (1983), she conceived the issue of identity as "a Metis problem, or a problem for ... native people being brought up in white foster homes" (Interview with Garrod 85). As the manager of Pemmican Publications, she linked the question of indigenous identity to matters of self-representation by emphasizing the need to provide students with "access to adequate and accurate knowledge of the Indian, Inuit and Metis people" through books that "do justice to the Native people and ... give them a voice" ("Images" 51). Yet, according to Janice Acoose, Mosionier's own work in In Search of April Raintree fails to "illustrate the Metis cultural identity" and, as a result, features a "dis-eased narrative voice" (228, 230). Consequently, insofar as the novel equates being Metis with being a culturally deprived survivor of foster care, it may "leave readers with mis-informed notions about the Metis" (Acoose 235). A further complication rests, however, in the lack of contemporary consensus on the constituents of Metis identity. By focusing on the question of identity, therefore, Mosionier not only addresses the impact of child welfare practices on Native people but also participates in a debate that has preoccupied the Metis community for the last forty years. (1) In the story of the Raintree sisters, Cheryl as well as April, she explores both what being Metis means in urban Canada in the decades following World War II and how writing literature functions in the production and transmission of culture. Generating its own aesthetic, one political as well as pedagogical, In Search of April Raintree thus conducts a historical and sociological inquiry into the terms of Metis identification that simultaneously modifies those terms so as to mediate the effects of cultural indeterminacy and dispossession while also examining possibilities for individual self-invention and national self-determination.
In its broadest lineaments as a tale of two Metis sisters taken into foster care, In Search of April Raintree draws on Mosionier's childhood experience as a ward of the Children's Aid Society of Winnipeg. Writing the novel was, said Mosionier, "a way of trying to find answers as to why our family seemed to come up against all these things--why my parents were alcoholics, why we had to grow up in foster homes, and why two sisters committed suicide.... A lot of the writing brought answers, and one of the biggest was that I had been ashamed of being a native person most of my life" (Interview with Garrod 81). Indeed, as Joyce Carlson observes in the foreword to the revised edition, entitled April Raintree (1984), the novel "illustrates the difficulties which many Native people face in maintaining a positive self-identity" by making one "young woman's search for identity" representative of "a much larger story--the story of the Metis" (vii). Even as subsequent critical discussions of In Search of April Raintree have emphasized its status as an identity quest, however, they have only glanced at its engagement with Metis identity politics. Noting that "Metis, in all its multiplicity, is only one set among a multitude of subject positions, not always commensurable, that [Mosionier] occupies," Helen Hoy argues, for example, that the novel challenges "unitary and essentialist discourses of identity" (169,168). For Jodi Lundgren, on the other hand, Mosionier's treatment of identity partakes of a cultural syncretism characteristic of postcolonialism; for Dawn Thompson, it posits an ethnic countermemory that resists and revises the official discourse of Canadian multiculturalism; for Margery Fee, it provides the novel's dual protagonists, April and Cheryl, with a strategy to endure and combat racism ("Deploying"); and for Dee Horne, it functions to create a template on which the author "maps the stereotypography of colonial discourse" (72). …