People & Culture

Rivers of resistance: A history of the Métis Nation of Ontario

"We were tired of hiding behind trees." The ebb and flow of Métis history as it has unfolded on Ontario’s shores 

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In the early 1990s, Art Bennett tried to get charged with poaching a moose near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. A Métis community leader, he was rereading the 1982 Constitution Act, and got as far as Section 35, which recognized the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. “I thought, ‘Jeez!’ you know, we have the same rights to harvest as First Nations!” says Bennett. He gathered his siblings and cousins together to tell them that their community harvesting rights — as Métis — were protected under the new act. His family looked at him. “Well, how are we going to prove it?” they asked. “We’re going to have to be charged,” Bennett said. “Go to court.”

Although the Métis had been recognized as one of three Indigenous Peoples in the 1982 act, the Crown didn’t acknowledge what — if any — rights Métis people had. Historically, the rights of Métis and “halfbreed” communities and individuals were ignored or excluded by the Crown. This meant that many Métis harvesters who provided for their families and communities across the Métis Nation Homeland were charged with “poaching” and “illegal” fishing throughout the 20th century. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, federal and provincial governments continued to walk away from political processes and substantive negotiation tables to address Métis rights.

But while this pattern of refusal played out, so did a deeply embedded paradigm of Métis resistance. Instead of waiting for governments to come back to the table, Métis harvesters and communities began to turn to the courts to ensure the constitutional promise made to them in 1982 had meaning. So began the “Métis Hunt for Justice,” as Métis moved their constitutional right to hunt for food to the Canadian courts. “We were tired of hiding behind trees,” says Bennett. “The time was right, the Constitution was new, and we wanted to prove that what was in there was right.”

Bennett harvested a moose and brought the hide into the old Ministry of Natural Resources office, which ran a “hats for hides” program. The officer at the desk asked for Bennett’s licence. Bennett replied that he didn’t have one. “And the guy was quite astounded that I’d bring a hide in and not have a licence. He said, ‘Well, who shot this moose?’and I said, ‘I did.’” The officer, looking perplexed, left the room and was gone for about 10 minutes. He came back and told Bennett he’d have to charge him. “Good,” said Bennett. Then: “what about my hat?”

That day, he left with the hat, but no charge.

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But shortly after, on October 22, 1993, Bennett’s cousin Steve Powley and his son Roddy set off from their home in Sault Ste. Marie. They headed north and shot a bull moose near Old Goulais Bay Road, which winds through a forested landscape at the western end of the Georgian Bay ecoregion. They tagged their catch on its ear with a Métis card and left a handwritten note that read “harvesting my meat for winter.”

“They had brought it home, skinned it, cleaned it — you know, we’re cut- ting it up,” says Brenda Powley, Steve’s widow. Then, two conservation officers from the Ministry of Natural Resources showed up at their door. A week later, they were charged for hunting without a licence and being in possession of an unlawfully hunted moose. Where Bennett had been given a hat, the Powleys’ case reached the Supreme Court of Canada. Through an extended legal battle, they were supported by the recently organized Métis government, the Métis Nation of Ontario, and its founding president Tony Belcourt.

“We have been forced to ‘skulk through the forest like criminals,’” wrote Belcourt in a 2000 Globe and Mail op-ed. “One Métis witness at the [Powley] trial told how Ontario conservation officers searched his house for fish, with guns drawn — knowing that only small children were at home. Despite the Constitution, the Ontario government has consistently refused to recognize our right to hunt.”

The Powley defence was also backed by the Métis National Council, the national voice of the Métis Nation that included the Métis Nation of Ontario and four other Métis Nation governments. In their factum written by Clément Chartier (who served as Métis National Council president from 2003 through 2021) and Métis lawyer Jason Madden, which referenced the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the Métis National Council asserted in front of the Supreme Court that: “The Métis community at Sault Ste. Marie is a part of the Métis Nation. The RCAP Report recognized it as one of the oldest within Canada.” Métis lawyer Jean Teillet, Louis Riel’s great-grand niece, led the Powley and Métis Nation of Ontario legal defence team.

It took a decade of lengthy court proceedings before the Supreme Court confirmed that the Powleys, as members of the Sault Ste. Marie Métis community, were exercising their Section 35 (constitutionally protected) right to hunt as Indigenous People. Successful at every level of the legal system, the Powleys — and the Powley test, a 10-point process for establishing Section 35 Métis rights — changed Métis history for- ever. The Powley decision “set out the legal test Métis communities from Ontario westward have repeatedly turned to — and successfully relied on,” wrote Madden in a 2021 article in the Osgoode Hall Law Journal.

The Powley case represented a turning point for Métis rights claims in Canada. Historically, the collectively held rights of the Métis (often referred to as “halfbreeds” in historical documents, including the 1870 Manitoba Act, Métis scrip records and censuses) were not recognized by the Crown (see sidebar “Halfbreeds” and other names below) In a 2011 case, the Supreme Court recognized that “although widely recognized as a culturally distinct Aboriginal people living in culturally distinct communities, the law remained blind to the unique history of the Métis and their unique needs.” This created a de facto system in which Métis were charged with “illegal” hunting and fishing throughout the 20th century. R. v. Powley, along with subsequent Métis harvesting rights “test cases” in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, reversed this refusal for a new generation of Métis harvesters.

In rejecting the many excuses by successive Crown governments that denied Métis harvesting rights, the Supreme Court acknowledged the recognition of Métis rights “flows from the constitutional imperative that we [Canada] recognize and affirm the aboriginal rights of the Métis, who appeared after the time of first contact.” For a Métis community to hold constitutionally protected rights, it must have “demographic evidence, proof of shared customs, traditions, and a collective identity.” Both historical and contemporary forms of resistance and collective assertions are fundamental to the legal recognition of Métis communities. While the Powley case was transformative, Métis in Ontario had been asserting their rights as a distinct Indigenous people for almost two centuries before Powley’s moose became a headline story.

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“When the decision did come down, there was so much noise that,” Brenda Powley pauses, chuckling, “we shocked everybody, I think, in Ottawa!” An article in the Métis Voyageur proclaimed, “For the Métis Nation of Ontario, indeed, for all Métis of Canada, this day may well mark the most important event since the trial of Louis Riel.”

For Powley, a humble man, it was simple: “It’s for my children,” he said in an interview at the time. “I’m not looking for anything, I don’t want anything, I just want my hunting rights for my family, for myself. And as long as I’m on this Earth, let me alone; let me hunt the way I should be hunting — to live off the land.”

The Powley case brought both the historical and modern-day collective assertions of the Métis community in and around the Upper Great Lakes and its tributaries to the forefront. Often, the history of the Métis in the Upper Great Lakes region was ignored or seen as less than the well-known events in the Red River valley or as a mere extension of First Nation history in the region. But the historical evidence in the Powley case was undeniable: Métis in Ontario have been standing up for their rights as a distinct group since the very beginning.

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Water is the great connector in a landscape criss-crossed by waterways. Métis settlements developed along the rivers and Great Lakes of the fur trade from the late 17th century through the early 1800s. “The process by which the Métis came into existence had to wait until French voyageurs and coureurs de bois reached the area of the Great Lakes. Even here, the process was slow and limited to single locations, usually the fur trade depots,” wrote Fred Shore, a Native Studies scholar at the University of Manitoba, in 2006.

The isolation of these fur trade depots created a network of Métis communities connected by water. Like the rivers, Métis individuals, languages and traditions flowed between these communities and from Ontario westward across the Métis homelands. The rivers and waterways were — and continue to be — central to Métis identity and ways of knowing. “It was a highway for us,” says Bennett. “My aunts, uncles and grandparents, they certainly knew the water out there and where the safe water was, where the shoals were, where to travel and where the fish were.”

In the Powley decision, the Supreme Court ruled that “a Métis community can be defined as a group of Métis with a distinctive collective identity, living together in the same geographic area and sharing a common way of life.” In the Upper Great Lakes, Métis communities persist to this day. In 2017, the province of Ontario — based on years of historical research and negotiations with the Métis Nation of Ontario — recognized six additional historical Métis communities in the province that meet the evidentiary requirements of the 2003 Powley decision, in addition to the historical Métis community at Sault Ste. Marie.

These historical and contemporary communities are linked, not only by physical waterways, but by kinship networks that connect Métis families across the homelands and by their ongoing resistance to non-Indigenous control. In 2017, the Métis Nation of Ontario released primary documents for verified Métis family lines identifying objectively verifiable Métis “root ancestors” and their descendants who made up rights-bearing historical Métis communities in Ontario. 

According to the MNO, this “included the review and compilation of well over 100,000 historical records” and identified “hundreds of Métis Root Ancestors from well-recognized historic Métis communities within Ontario.”

As long as the rivers continue to flow, Métis communities in the Upper Great Lakes will continue to uphold these rights that were gained over nearly two centuries of resistance and struggle.

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The spectre of Métis uprisings emerged throughout the Upper Great Lakes following the War of 1812, and there were multiple moments when Métis in Ontario pushed back against the infringement of their rights and the encroachment of their traditional territories.

In 1838, fear of a Métis uprising could be felt in the pages of the Hudson’s Bay Company correspondence book. Its records note that Métis leaders Louis Nolin and Louis Garneau threw a ball (see sidebar You shall go to the ball below) on the U.S. side of the St. Marys River in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, which was feared to be an organization tactic. Garneau’s son Laurent Garneau — a Métis activist and an accomplished fiddler — was later involved in the Red River Resistance, just one example of how Métis uprisings in Ontario were, and are, connected to stories of resistance across the Métis Nation Homeland.

The uprising simmered throughout the 1830s and 1840s, as the Crown consistently refused to deal with historical Métis communities as collectives — a pattern of resistance and refusal that would echo through the decades. (Because the Métis didn’t belong to First Nations bands, they weren’t considered eligible for Treaty payments, or presents.) The colonial refusal built upon the foundational position taken by Indian Agent Thomas Gummersall Anderson, who in 1842 wrote a document called “The mode of excluding Half-breeds from receiving Presents,” which said it was considered a crime to give presents “to people whose skins are partly white.” He continued: “no half-breed shall receive Presents who does not live in the Tribe, and under the control of the Chief.” Anderson concluded with a note that he didn’t expect any difficulty “in preventing the improper class of half-breeds from receiving presents at Manitoulin Island and Penetanguishene.” Historic Métis communities in the Upper Great Lakes were the “improper class of half-breeds” who formed their own communities, distinct from both their First Nations and European relatives. In an 1893 affidavit, Joachim (Joshan) Biron of the Sault Ste. Marie Métis community, recalled that “only four of us agreed to join his [Chief Shingwaukonce’s] Band — myself (Joshan Biron), my brother Alexis Biron, John Bell, and Luison Cadotte. All the other Half-breeds said that they were already Indians enough without binding themselves to be under an Indian Chief.” 

In 1839, a number of Métis con- fronted Chief Superintendant of Indian Affairs Samuel Jarvis in Penetanguishene. Jarvis wrote, “July last when at Penetanguishene a number of them surrounded the house I was in, for their purpose [of ] claiming and insisting upon having that which they [asserted?] was their right, as long as the distribution of presents to the Indians was continued by government.”

Although the names of these Métis are not known, they were collectively acting on behalf of the Métis community at Penetanguishene. Many of their descendants continue to live in the historical Georgian Bay Métis community.

The Métis also used a strategy that was common among Indigenous people at the time: they wrote petitions to the government. In these petitions, they often identified themselves to the governor general as “loyal subjects.” In 1840, 22 “half breeds residing in the Town of Penetanguishene” petitioned the governor general to recognize their rights as a distinct people. “Your Petitioners, have always proved them- selves, to be good and loyal Subjects, and a number of them when Call’d upon, have served in the Militia, and will always be ready at any Call when their services may again be required,” reasoned the Métis leaders. “Your Petitioners most humbly beg your Excellency will take their case under your Excellency’s consideration and that your Excellency would be pleased to allow them to have the same advantages that persons of the same class (living at the Sault St. Marie [sic] and other places on the shores of Lake Huron), derive from the issue of Indian presents to them and their families.”

Petitions on behalf of the historic Georgian Bay and the historic Sault Ste. Marie Métis communities are acknowledged by historian Lawrence Barkwell as two of the first four Métis petitions ever to be written, with the others written on behalf of Métis in Minnesota and at Red River.

But the Métis didn’t just write letters to stand up for their rights.

On November 1, 1849, tensions finally boiled over when a number of Métis and Anishinaabeg “borrowed” a cannon and boarded a schooner to Mica Bay to shut down a mine that was operating without their permission. According to Anishinaabe oral traditions, another smaller party travelled overland, lighting a series of huge bonfires along Lake Superior’s northeastern coastline. This might have been to help guide the expedition, although others think it could have been to mislead the authorities into thinking the rebellion was bigger than it was. Along with three Anishinaabe leaders and two non-Indigenous individuals, three Métis leaders — including 16-year-old Eustace Lesage, an ancestor to both the Powleys and the Bennetts, and his brother Pierre — were arrested and taken to be tried in Toronto. They were eventually released — but anti-colonial resistance never ceased in Métis communities in the region.

The Mica Bay uprising pushed the Crown to sign the Robinson- Huron and Superior treaties, but the Métis community in Sault Ste. Marie and environs were excluded. When fur trader and politician William B. Robinson was sent to establish treaties in the Lake Huron and Lake Superior regions in 1850, he, too, had refused to deal with the Métis as a collective. “I told them that I came to treat with the chiefs who were present, that the money would be paid to [the Chiefs],” wrote Robinson. The Chiefs “might give as much or little to that class of claimants [the “halfbreeds”] as they pleased.” Because the Métis formed their own communities, they weren’t considered eligible for treaty payments, even though Anishinaabe leadership supported their claims.

Métis in the Upper Great Lakes and parts of Ontario never ceded their collective rights and persist to this day. But some entered First Nations communities, while others were seen by outsiders as “white.” “My grandfather, Leonard Lesage, he was from Batchewana Band, so he was one of the first ones to be accepted into the Robinson-Huron Treaty,” says Bennett. “So he did take Indian status, but there were other members of the family who didn’t. I guess they held firm their beliefs that they were Métis; they weren’t Indian.”

Top, left to right: Mitch Case, MNO president Margaret Froh. Bottom, left to right: MNO council member Jo Anne Young, Steve Powley and Tony Belcourt.
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The Métis Nation of Ontario now represents the collectively held rights of Métis communities in the Upper Great Lakes and parts of Ontario. This includes the descendants of those Métis in Sault Ste. Marie and Penetanguishene who stood up for their communities and rights as a distinct people almost two centuries ago. “At one time [the government] didn’t want to deal with us. Now they have to deal with us,” says Brenda Powley. “It’s been a proud time to watch us grow from nothing into something … it’s not just one person, it’s not just one community, it’s everybody from right across Ontario.”

Today, artists, writers and cultural workers are leading the way forward for historic Métis communities in Ontario and the Métis Nation through ongoing reclamation and continuation of Métis stories. “It’s really cool because you can literally see all of our names on there, our family names,” says Wenzdae Dimaline-Manchester, a Métis artist and beadworker from the Georgian Bay community, whose ancestors signed the Penetanguishene petition. “That story of my family being one of the first people to fight for our rights — I’m very proud of that.” 

 

“I just want my hunting rights for my family, for myself. And as long as I’m on this Earth, let me alone; let me hunt the way I should be hunting.”

And resistance continues to flow through the veins of contemporary Métis citizens and rights-holders, as they continue to advocate for their collectively held rights and use community-based cultural knowledge in profoundly moving ways. Dimaline- Manchester’s mother, author Cherie Dimaline, is at the forefront of retelling Métis histories and culture. In the prologue to her novel Empire of Wild, she writes: “Old medicine has a way of being remembered, of haunting the land where it was laid. People are forgetful. Medicine is not.” By reclaiming and retelling old stories — and rekindling kinships and social relationships — Métis communities in Ontario continue to be connected via rivers of relations and routes of resistance.

In 2017, the Métis Nation of Ontario youth council organized what they called a “beadwork revolution.” Mitch Case, former youth council president and current regional councillor on the provisional council of the Métis Nation of Ontario — and a sought-after beadworker — believes that through beadwork, Métis artisans “reclaim the art of our people, the art we created, and to proclaim to the world that we are proud to be Métis.”

Through their work, artists are ensuring Métis sovereignty into the future. The Métis Nation of Ontario recently announced the creation of the Powley Institute, focusing on Métis arts, culture and history, ensuring that Métis history and culture remains at the centre of the Nation’s self-government.

Kelly Duquette is a Métis Nation of Ontario citizen, lawyer and artist. As a painter, Duquette thinks critically about the painting process and incorporates beadwork into her paintings. “I use beadwork to comment on how I’m trying to string it all together,” says Duquette. “I’m still resisting. We’re resilient. We’re still here… We are not exactly how we used to be, but we’re still here.”

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“Halfbreeds” and other names

Métis individuals and communities have also been known by other names over the years. These names appear frequently in the historical record in the Upper Great Lakes, parts of Ontario and the Prairies. There are even a couple of forms of the word “Métis” in the historical record in the Upper Great Lakes and parts of Ontario, including “Metif,” “Metiff,” “Metis” and “Metes.”

The racialized term “halfbreeds” is found extensively in historical records in Ontario, referring to both individuals and communities. In 1846, Lt.-Col. Richard Henry Bonnycastle wrote that in Penetanguishene, “you first see the half-breed, the offspring of the white and red, who had all the bad qualities of both with very few of the good either, except in rare instances.” The term “halfbreed” is now considered outdated and offensive, especially when used by non-Métis individuals. Today, however, there are Métis citizens who have chosen to reclaim the term “halfbreed.” A.C. Osbourne’s “The Migration of Voyageurs from Drummond Island to Penetanguishene in 1828,” published by the Ontario Historical Society in 1901, includes extensive oral histories of community members speaking in their own voices — and no fewer than 20 uses of the term “halfbreed.”

It is clear in the historical record that the people now represented by the Métis Nation of Ontario are not simply mixed-ancestry individuals. During an 1843-44 scarlet fever outbreak in Penetanguishene, for instance, a medical doctor distinguished the different “races” in the area — which today we would think of as distinct ethnic communities — to include French Canadians, British, Chipawa- Indians (sic) and “half-breeds, which is their common local name, and who are of Indian and French or of Indian and British parentage.” Three years later, Sault Ste. Marie was called a “Canadian village of half-breeds.” Government documents from 1862 reference the fishing waters of the “Penetanguishene Halfbreeds.” This community is distinguished from First Nations and from French Canadians.

By the time of the 1901 census, many Métis community members were recorded as “FB,” short for “French Breeds.” In these same records, other community members — often cousins, aunts and uncles of those identified as FBs — were identified in the same census as French. This malleability of Métis identity in the historical record was recognized by the Supreme Court in the Powley decision: “We recognize that different groups of Métis have often lacked political structures and have experienced shifts in their members’ self-identification.” The Powley decision negated any reliance on “blood quantum” as a factor in community acceptance.

These names may have shifted over time, but the sense of distinct identity as a people remains.

You shall go to the ball

A look into the 19th-century historical record shows the importance of Métis balls and fiddle music, particularly given the expansive territory that Métis travelled, as well as the seasonal nature of their work. In 1876, a Boston Globe article titled “Dance in a Log House” described a ball held somewhere along the north shore of Lake Superior “with the hills and falls of Michipicoten for a background.”

“The fiddler began to play. So to break the ice, which seemed to be the thickest kind, two of us acted on our pilot’s instructions and stepped up to the partners of choice. We said, “Ne mee dah?” (Will you dance?) as directly as possible to two young squaws [sic]… The dance was French four and eight. Refreshments were served at 12, consisting of tea, crackers, maple sugar, butter for us and lard for the Indians. The half-breed Frenchmen are much more picturesque. They are handsome men, wear crimson turbans, and make effecting groups leaning on their paddles.”

These social gatherings or balls were crucial to the development of distinct Métis communities and, in fact, brought together the various communities that make up the diversity within the Métis Nation.

In about 1845, a newspaper published an account of a “soirée in the Soo.” This date is crucial, because it was temporally between the fear of an 1838 Métis rebellion at Sault Ste. Marie led by Louis Nolin and Louis Garneau and the 1849 Mica Bay affair. The “soirée in the Soo” was a hit, according to the journalist who wrote about it. “Last eve, there was a party here, to which we were kindly invited. The soiree was held at a good sized hewn log-house, situated on the principal [street] in the village. Such a motley group, I do not believe was even before seen. There were French, Canucs, Bankees and Halfbreeds. Dancing was the chief amusement, and all participated.”

The distinction made between French Canadian, Canucs (presumably British loyalists in this context), Bankees (which likely refers to Bangiis or Scottish “halfbreeds” from Red River), and the local “halfbreeds” or Métis is clear. Throughout the Upper Great Lakes, there were ethnic distinctions between various Euro-descendent, Métis and First Nations communities. The fiddle was a central musical element at these “halfbreed” balls in the Upper Great Lakes, as well as farther west.

A People of the lands

We, the Métis, are a people of the lands, which gave rise to our history and tradition and culture. We call those lands the Métis Homelands. The Homelands stretch from the lakes and rivers of Ontario; cross the wide prairies, traverse the mountains into British Columbia and into the northern reaches of the Northwest Territories. They include the hills and valleys of the north-central American States. These are our lands. They are Métis lands. They are the lands of our past which nurture us today and which we value as the precious foundation of our future.” —Foundational vision of the Métis Nation of Ontario, 1993

Dylan Miner (@wiisaakodewinini) is a citizen of the Métis Nation of Ontario. He is a professor and dean of Michigan State University’s Residential College in the Arts and Humanities. He is also a visual artist. Courtney Vaughan is a Métis researcher and writer based in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Alexander Young is a Métis illustrator based in London, Ont.

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This story is from the September/October 2022 Issue

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