Doris Jeanne MacKinnon, the Identities of Marie Rose Delorme Smith: Portrait of a Metis Woman, 1861-1960

By Payment, Diane P. | Manitoba History, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Doris Jeanne MacKinnon, the Identities of Marie Rose Delorme Smith: Portrait of a Metis Woman, 1861-1960


Payment, Diane P., Manitoba History


Doris Jeanne MacKinnon, The Identities of Marie Rose Delorme Smith: Portrait of a Metis Woman, 1861-1960. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, University of Regina, 2012, 208 pages. ISBN 9780889772366, $34.95 (paperback)

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Marie Rose Delorme Smith lived a long and productive life. A strong, enterprising and resilient woman, she appears to have privately cherished her Metis heritage, in particular her childhood in Red River, Manitoba and her youth on hunting and trading expeditions in the western plains. For most of her life, however, circumstances led her to identify herself at least outwardly with the dominant Anglo-Canadian majority, as Mary or Mrs. Charlie Smith. The innocent, convent-educated, fifteen-year-old "quarter-breed" (a term she used to describe other "Metis" women of her status) was reportedly "forced" by her mother to marry the much older, rich and "hard living" whisky trader, Charlie Smith. (1) Marie Rose had seventeen children between 1878 and 1904, served "the boss" (her husband), and did woman's work and more. She essentially ran the Jughandle Ranch, as she had the business acumen and the wandering Charlie was often "absent." After his death in 1914, she took a second homestead (as the widow of an original homesteader, as women could not obtain a homestead under the Dominion Lands Act) and also ran a boarding house to re-establish the family's reduced finances and raise her large family.

Freed from domestic responsibilities by the 1930s, the energetic and intelligent Marie Rose reflected upon her past and felt she had a story to tell about her "pioneer life" in the west. She wrote mainly about "safe" topics such as the ranching culture, frontier life, and respected Aboriginal ("Indian") traditions. Related to her history she discussed some controversial events such as the "Rebellion" (2) of 1885, Louis Riel, and the execution of Thomas Scott, but she largely conformed to the official view of the "poor ignorant Halfbreeds" and misguided Riel. She did not acknowledge the active involvement of her Delorme uncles or the views of her sisters, Elisa Ness and Madeleine Gareau, who lived at Batoche during the Resistance. Rather she presented the views of her "loyalist" brother-in-law, George Ness, who opposed the "rebels" and testified against Riel at his trial. It is as if Marie Rose needed to "rehabilitate" her compatriots in the eyes of her Euro-Canadian readers and conform to the official or accepted version of events. One area where she was resolute, however, was in her devotion to the Roman Catholic faith and the support of her mentor, Father Lacombe.

Marie Rose was strong-minded and assertive in her personal life, but selective if not fearful of revealing her Metis origins and cultural traditions to outsiders. Considering the enduring racism and intolerance of the early 20th century, it is not surprising that she distanced herself from her Metis heritage. The Metis of Western Canada were effectively silenced, crushed, and humiliated in 1885. Southern Alberta ranching society was particularly anti-French and critical of Aboriginal lifestyles in the decades that followed. Like many Metis of her generation, Marie Rose wanted to be accepted and ensure the integration of her children into mainstream society. She spoke of her decorative beadwork, storytelling, and healing practices, but she did not transmit her Michif French language or sensitive cultural traditions to her children and descendants. Most of her children married into the Anglo-Canadian or immigrant community, and her grandchildren hid or denied their Metis heritage until its resurgence in the late 20th century.

In this way, Marie Rose's life and behaviour parallel that of other Metis women of her time who did not live in a predominantly Michif French community such as St. Laurent (Manitoba), Batoche (Saskatchewan) or Fort Providence (Northwest Territories). Even in those communities, fear and humiliation forced many women to keep their heads down or assume the identity of their non-Metis family. …

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