#919 Métis descent vs the race-shifters

Distorted Descent: White Claims to Indigenous Identity
by Darryl Leroux

Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2019
$27.95 / 9780887558467

Reviewed by David Milward

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The arrival of Europeans on the shores of the Americas centuries ago made certain results inevitable. The colonization of Indigenous peoples, with its attendant atrocities and exploitation, certainly constitute a great many of those results. Another inevitability was intermarriage between the European arrivals and the Indigenous residents. That in turn meant significant generations of people of mixed ancestries. In fact, mestizo is a centuries’ old Latin American term often meant to describe someone descended from both Spanish (or Portuguese) and Indigenous ancestors. And miscegenation between Europeans and Indigenous peoples in turn meant that Indigenous identity would forever after become a subject of incredible controversy and debate.

The Métis, whomever they may be, present a prime example of the kinds of controversies that can surround claims to Indigenous identity. I myself have frequently been asked if I am Métis, which is understandable since many Indigenous peoples themselves equate the term with anyone of mixed Indigenous ancestry. My answer has always been no, and that I am a member of a Cree First Nation through my mother. My answer is not driven by shame, but out of a sense that it would be a disservice to Métis people themselves to make a claim that I do not feel I merit. It reflects an understanding shared by many other Indigenous peoples that the definition of Métis people necessarily has to include cultural and historical elements as well. Métis cultures have, over the decades, evolved their cultures to include elements of both Indigenous and European (especially French and Scottish) cultures. The Métis also have their own language, michif, which again reflects both Indigenous and European elements.

The Métis flag raised at the BC legislature on Louis Riel Day, February 15, 2017. Deputy Premier Carole James (left) is of Métis descent. Photo courtesy BC Local News
Coast to coast. Darryl Leroux teaches at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. Photo courtesy Twitter

Sometimes claims to Indigenous authenticity and heritage can be a source of debate and strife among Indigenous peoples themselves. Claims to the benefits of legislation such as the Indian Act, including the right to vote in band elections and access to financial benefits, are often at the heart of such disputes. Sometimes it is deeper than just tangible benefits. Questions of identity are also bound up with differing perspectives on to what degree can an Indigenous person immerse him or herself in the lifestyles of the colonizers and yet retain a sense of authenticity. Where is the line that separates legitimate cultural evolution and inevitable syncretism from betrayal and inauthenticity? And who gets to decide where those lines are drawn?

These questions seem controversial and difficult in their own right, even within recognized Indigenous communities themselves. What happens when people of dubious claims to Indigenous community and lineage start to assert themselves as legitimate claimants to Indigenous identity? That theme is the focus of Darryl Leroux’s new book, Distorted Descent: White Claims to Indigenous Identity. Leroux spends the early portions of his book describing the various genealogical techniques by which organizations and their members, who can fairly be considered settler instead of Indigenous, lay claim to Indigenous identities. And some of those techniques can feel like the proverbial pulling of a rabbit from the magic hat.

There is for example the technique of Lineal Descent, claiming to be descended from an identifiable Indigenous ancestor who shows up in a pronounced way in historical materials. The convenience manifests when simply identifying that ancestor is considered enough to establish a claim to Indigenous identity, without any painstaking and robust genealogical processes of verifying Indigenous inheritance from that ancestor through the generations and all the way to the claimant. An example of the lineal descent technique that Leroux focuses on is an Indigenous woman named Marie Sylvestre, who is apparently the basis for many settler claims to Indigenous identity. That the evidence suggests that her surviving children were raised in a French-Canadian community, and not much else beyond that, strongly suggests that establishing such a chain may be challenging to say the least. But it is enough for the “race shifters” to pin their claims on Sylvestre as an ancestor, or a few other notable Indigenous women Leroux identifies.

Langlois-Garnier marriage, 1634. Courtesy Quebec catholic church records, Notre-Dame-de-Quebec, 1621-1679

Another technique is what Leroux terms Aspirational Descent, constructing someone from the past as an Indigenous ancestor, even though any evidentiary basis to conclude that past person was actually Indigenous may be questionable to say the least. Francoise Grenier is one of the most frequent examples that showed up in Leroux’s research. And then there is Lateral Descent, where direct descent from the past Indigenous figure may not necessarily be established, but the claim to Indigenous identity can be established by claiming descent from a family member of that identifiable figure.

Leroux next focuses his attention on how legal developments have led to a definite irony. Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, is the Aboriginal rights provision of Canada’s constitution. An outstanding question until 2003 was how the rights of Métis people, who are explicitly mentioned in s. 35, were going to be framed. Métis people were in anxiety because judicial interpretation of s. 35 had limited Aboriginal rights to those that were practiced prior to contact with Europeans. The obvious source of anxiety is that Métis peoples are themselves the products of extended contact between First Nations and European settlers. The Powley decision from the Supreme Court of Canada was an effort to answer those fears. A different temporal cut off point was provided for the Métis, when Canada asserted legal control over territories they resided in.[1] Powley was an effort to open a door that many feared had been closed against those who merited being let into the benefits of s. 35 rights. The irony is that the act of opening that door has become an invitation to people who were never contemplated as beneficiaries of s. 35 at its inception.

Métis hunter Steve Powley and his son Roddy. Photo courtesy SaultOnline.com
Licence plate of Logo de la Communauté métisse du Domaine du Roy et de la Seigneurie de Mingan

Leroux details two such examples. One is the Communauté métisse du Domaine du Roy et de la Seigneurie de Mingan (CMDRSM), a white settler organization that opposed Innu land claims and hunting rights around the St. Lawrence River. Their opposition had prior to Powley been limited to channeling public opinion and political will against the Innu. They joined the Corneau case as new plaintiffs staking a claim to s. 35 rights under Powley as a “Métis” community, a claim to the same land being claimed by the Innu.[2] The other example is the Métis Nation of the Rising Sun, another white settler organization that began several “Métis” rights cases of its own to foil Mikmaw hunting and fishing rights in the Gaspé Peninsula.

The irony is that these “Métis” claims come from people against whom s. 35 rights were meant to demand redress from, and who were not at all envisioned by anyone in 1982 as being potential beneficiaries of s. 35. Race-shifting techniques of genealogy have allowed white settler organizations to give constitutional and legal teeth to their opposition to Indigenous rights, where previously they were limited to trying to muster political will. Leroux is entirely correct when he condemns the whole phenomena as a more creative form of colonialism, and one that is contrary to the spirit of s. 35.

Distorted Descent is a fascinating book that I can recommend for anyone interested in Indigenous rights, or, for that matter, anyone interested in controversial questions of race and identity.

Endnotes:

[1] R. v. Powley, [2003] 2 S.C.R. 207.

[2] Corneau c. Quebec, 2016 QCCA 1835.

Darryl Leroux. Photo courtesy Toronto Star

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David Milward

David Milward is an Associate Professor of Law with the University of Victoria, and a member of the Beardy’s & Okemasis First Nation of Duck Lake, Saskatchewan. He assisted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the authoring of its final report on Indigenous justice issues, and is the author of Aboriginal Justice and the Charter: Realizing a Culturally Sensitive Interpretation of Legal Rights (UBC Press, 2013), which was joint winner of the K.D. Srivastava Prize for Excellence in Scholarly Publishing and was short-listed for Canadian Law & Society Association Book Prize, both for books published in 2013. David is also the author of numerous articles on Indigenous justice in leading national and international law journals. Editor’s note: David Milward has also reviewed books by Bob Joseph with Cynthia F. Joseph, Elspeth Kaiser-Derrick, David B. MacDonald, and Darrel J. McLeod for The Ormsby Review.

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