Who Can Call Themselves Métis?

With the latest census surge in the Métis population, it's time to start talking about how we define the term

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iStock / selimaksan

The Métis are an Indigenous people that originated in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century on the northern plains of what is now southern Manitoba. Centred historically in and around Red River (now Winnipeg) and intimately tied to the buffalo-hunting economy, the Métis became a powerful force by the middle of the nineteenth century, pushing back against the Hudson’s Bay Company’s claims to economic monopoly and later leading two armed resistances against the Canadian state. Despite this powerful historic presence and the fact that the 1982 Constitution Act enumerated the Métis, along with First Nations and Inuit, as one of three Aboriginal peoples in Canada, the term has, in recent years, largely fallen into racialized disrepute.

Today, many people understand “Métis” not as an Indigenous nation but as denoting people with a mixture of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ancestry. The Government of Canada has used the term in this manner in multiple policy contexts. Inconsistent usage of Métis has produced confusing and even contradictory results in the heart of some of Canada’s most powerful institutions, including the census. This has exacerbated an already-confusing state of affairs in the minds of the general public and many policy actors about who the Métis people are and the kinds of relationships with government to which we aspire.

The confusion about the meaning of the term “Métis” has most recently come to a boil through Statistics Canada’s late October 2017 release of the Aboriginal population estimates for data collected in the 2016 census. In keeping with previous censuses, the latest numbers revealed substantial increases in the Aboriginal population of Canada, up slightly more than 40 percent in the past decade. The Métis population surge was even larger: 587,000 respondents identified as Métis in 2016, up more than 50 percent since 2006. Perhaps even more remarkably, although a majority of those self-identifying as Métis still live west of Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces both reported eyebrow-raising increases: a 150 percent jump in Quebec (to just under 70,000 people) and a 125 percent rise in Nova Scotia (to roughly 23,000).

These numbers, once perplexing, are now anticipated by demographers and social scientists alike, who have stood transfixed by the so-called Métis population’s astonishing, decades-long climb. Usually, statistical agencies explain population dynamics according to “natural” demographic factors such as fertility, mortality, and migration. However, Statistics Canada has additionally explained the growth in the Métis population in terms of increased self-identification. Academics often refer to this phenomenon as “ethnic mobility,” the phenomenon by which respondents change their census identifications over time. In the case of the Métis population, this involves respondents changing from not checking off the “Métis” box in one census to checking it off in the next. Arguably, this explanation is too simplistic, but the point remains salient: respondents are checking off the Métis box at far higher rates than natural demographic factors would anticipate.

The reasons why census respondents change the way they identify over time differ depending on the shift being documented. In general, however, explanations link the decision of these individuals to events in broader society that encourage and perhaps even compel them to change their self-identification. In a Métis context, Statistics Canada, Métis politicians, and academics have investigated how the increased discussion of all things Métis has affected the public consciousness. Over the past fifteen years, there have been several notable Métis victories in the Supreme Court of Canada, as well as the completion of and Canadian response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015.

These events have created an ecosystem within which individuals have felt more confident to self-identify on the census as Métis. Unfortunately, the manner in which Statistics Canada collects information on Métis population statistics—self-identification—means that little clarity exists on what respondents mean when they identify as Métis. The inescapable conclusion from this is that the numbers themselves do not provide the evidence-based clarity required for strong government-to-government relationships between the Métis people and various levels of Canadian government since we cannot tell from the numbers themselves, which respondents feel any allegiance to the Métis nation.

What is fundamentally at stake in how the Canadian census asks the Métis identity question is the census’s ability to offer a powerful, illuminating lens through which to look at ourselves—as Canadians and, more specifically, as the Métis people. The extent to which we as Canadians can successfully do so, however, relies on whether the census data is meaningful enough to provide evidence for the kinds of policy relationships Canada claims it wants. In the case of the Métis people, existing census questions and the population estimates fall far short of supporting such respectful relationships—to our detriment.

It may come as a surprise to many that the Métis population number is derived from a single self-identification question on the long-form census survey: “Is this person an Aboriginal person, that is, First Nations (North American Indian), Métis or Inuk (Inuit)?” The population statistics gathered through this question have led many to take the latest census numbers with a grain of salt, to say the least. Commenting on the rise in the Ontario Métis population in particular, for example, Manitoba Métis Federation president David Chartrand suggested that it was overinflated by as much as 20 percent. Chartrand’s skepticism is rooted in the idea that identifying as Métis should require more than the self-identification called for in the census question: respondents should also hold connections to historically rooted Métis communities. In his estimation, more Métis communities exist in Manitoba than they do in Ontario.

In a recent Métis Nation Newsletter, Métis National Council president Clément Chartier echoed Chartrand’s remarks, calling into question the Métis Nation of Ontario’s formal recognition of several locales as “historic” Métis communities. Much of the tension that sits at the base of Chartier’s challenge—the differentiation between Métis Nation citizens and those who self-identified based on “mixed ancestry”—is geographical, reflecting different narratives about the temporal beginnings and geographical boundaries of the Métis Nation.

In short: if the Métis nation began geographically at Red River, does it begin temporally there as well? A fur-trade-oriented narrative positions Métis people as part of the successive generations of intermarriages between European fur traders and First Nations women that fuelled the growth of the fur trade in the upper Great Lakes and westward. A more nationhood-based one centres Red River and the Prairies, with familial and trade connections to the Great Lakes. These two narrative origins – the Great Lakes versus the Prairies – sit uneasily in the academic literature and, unsurprisingly, in legal and political contexts as well. And while the tension between these two narratives may seem abstract, they also directly inform how respondents approach and answer census questions.

Understanding why that is requires that we reorient our perception of what censuses are and what they do in modern nation-states such as Canada. Generally, censuses are generally seen as highly technical processes that produce more or less accurate estimations of population characteristics. Indeed, Statistics Canada’s world-class demographers and statisticians work diligently to ensure that the numbers eventually presented to the public are as technically accurate as they can be. In a very real way, census populations come to represent the reality of who we (think we) are as a nation. For good reason, a wide range of organizations and stakeholders, government and non, make use of these numbers in shaping their policy relationships with the various levels of government.

However, a focus on technical aspects largely misses the internal interpretive complexities of experts, stakeholders, and procedures involved in actual census taking. Most of us take census numbers for granted—as in the oft-heard phrase “the numbers speak for themselves”—and very few of us have the inclination to peek under the hood. Our failure to do so increases the likelihood that we will miss the ways that censuses do far more than simply collect information. The census is not a mirror but a lens: probably the most powerful lens we have for looking at the Canadian nation. But since the census can only “see” the Canadian nation according to the information it collects, the questions it uses to collect that information inevitably shape the vision it is able to offer.

A simple but useful way to explain what is otherwise the fairly complex issue of what censuses can “see” is to draw analogously from the old joke about a drunk man looking for his vehicle keys. It goes something like this: a police officer comes upon a man, on his hands and knees, crawling in a circle around a streetlight. Puzzled, he walks up to the man and asks, “Sir, what are you doing?” The man looks up quickly, mutters, “Looking for my car keys,” and turns back to his task. As the officer watches the man again circle the streetlight, he asks, still puzzled, “Where did you lose them?” The man replies, waving vaguely down the street, “Over there someplace.” The police officer, now perplexed, asks, “If you lost them over there, why are you looking for them here?” The man, now exasperated, replies, “Because that’s where the light is.”

The point here is that a street lamp can only reveal what it—what we—cast light on, and in this crucial sense, censuses do not merely reflect or record social reality, they produce it. The statistics we produce depend on the information we collect. In turn, the information we collect is highly dependent on the questions we ask. Population statistics are fundamentally determined by who, what, when, and how certain census questions are asked. If what censuses do can be understood in terms of a form of illumination, how they do it can be thought of in terms of, say, a fishing net: net size, location, time of day, time of year, the individual expertise of the fisher, and the collective impact the kind of fish they are able to catch. And so it is with census information as well.

In an Indigenous context, consider how much of the policy story the Canadian government tells about communities is derived from information gathered through the census. This is not in any way to dismiss or make light of the very real, very pressing, and very well-documented social conditions that exist in many Indigenous communities. But the sum total of who we are, particularly as Indigenous peoples, is far broader and far more complex than the stories the census has the ability to tell. How much, for example, do we know about the city-specific character of urban Indigenous communities or that of individual Indigenous nations? Comparatively little, because we either collect no information on these dynamics or we spend no time analyzing the data we do collect in ways that would answer such questions. Nonetheless, the data eventually publicly presented about Indigenous communities comes to stand in for the idea that that is all we are.

The data produced by the census comes from the questions it asks, and Statistics Canada takes great pains to ensure that any particular question means the same thing to respondents as it does to those who crafted the census. And yet this also tacitly assumes, as it must, that all respondents define Métis the same way. That assumption is complicated, perhaps fatally, by Statistics Canada’s own internal quality-assurance information, which clearly indicates that respondents answering the “Aboriginal Question” define Métis in different—and, importantly, conflicting—ways. And so we have some respondents who define the term Métis in terms of an Indigenous nation with historical roots and respondents who define the term to indicate their mixed Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ancestry. No doubt other census respondents define the term in yet other ways.

This is an unsettling fact for not only Statistics Canada but all census data users. When Chartrand, for instance, suggested that the Métis population numbers are overinflated, his analytical heart may be in the right place but his aim is, perhaps, not. Dismissing population estimates for their inaccuracy—the form most criticisms of the census take—is like blaming cartoons for not looking like real people: it may be true, but it’s beside the point. If how the Canadian census measures the Métis population is wrong, it isn’t because it is incorrectly counted but, rather, because it is unable to differentiate between the definitions of “Métis” that respondents use when they answer the census question. As such, it sends mixed messages about the Métis people and our demographic characteristics. Are we getting younger or older? Is our socio-economic, health, or educational status improving or worsening? The blurry portrait painted by the Canadian census is of limited value when it comes to answering these and a host of other centrally vital questions to the Métis people.

Many might balk at the idea that the term Métis should be restricted to the Métis of the Canadian West. Who are we to suggest that not everyone who self identifies as Métis actually is? The issue, at least in the case of the census, isn’t about restriction but clarity. A census question that cannot achieve this cannot provide data that supports a meaningful, government-to-government relationship between the Métis people and Canada. Nor, for that matter, does a geographical cut-off (e.g., “the western provinces”) solve the issue, as some Métis Nation officials appear to think it does, since even then we still don’t know what people mean when they answer the question.

It would, of course, be one thing if Canada had no interest in a government-to-government relationship based on clear, evidence-based principles. At least rhetorically, however, the current federal government has publicly aspired to such relations, as have federal and provincial governments before it. And obviously, so do the Métis National Council and its provincial affiliates, who are linked to the historic Métis people of (what is now) the Canadian West. A contemporary world of Government of Canada–Métis policy relations based on a respect for Métis nationhood would require exactly the kind of evidence that Canada’s census not only does not but cannot provide.

Toward this end of evidentiary clarity, I have written elsewhere about how Statistics Canada could produce a question (or questions) that are more respectful of the Métis people:

“Are you a member of the “Métis Nation,” i.e. the Indigenous people whose ancestors historically self-identified as Métis and who resided in the historic Métis Nation homeland centred in what is now western Canada?”

This question focuses on the Métis as a distinctive Indigenous people, and it likewise focuses on the importance of historical self-identification as Métis. The exact wording of the question itself would, of course, need to be worked out through Statistics Canada’s exhaustive consultation process with relevant stakeholders and data users. Whether the question ends up looking like this or not, it must be able to differentiate between respondents who claim allegiance to the Métis Nation and those who do not (in whatever form that might take) and Statistics Canada’s consultation with relevant stakeholders must include the Métis National Council and its provincial affiliates. Until this consultation and commitment to changing the census happens, the questions on the form will continue to unnecessarily muddy and obfuscate what a more ethical and dignified relationship with the Métis people could and, based on the ideals Canada aspires to, should look like.

Chris Andersen
Dr. Chris Andersen is the dean of the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta and is the former director of the Rupertsland Centre for Métis Research. He is the author of two books including, with Maggie Walter, Indigenous Statistics: A Quantitative Indigenous Methodology and “Métis”: Race, Recognition and the Struggle for Indigenous Peoplehood."