Learning about what it means to be Métis

Métis Summer Cultural Program training

A personal account from Lucy Fowler, one of the MNO Métis Summer Cultural Interpreters.

cultural kids
Group of Summer Youth Cultural Program Interpreters during training at Old
Fort William.

Designed to strengthen and share Métis culture and history, the Métis Nation of Ontario (MNO) Métis Summer Youth Cultural Program (SYCP) is a community based initiative comprised of students that deliver Métis culture and history programs to community groups throughout the summer. This summer's project will focus on creating greater awareness of the contributions of Métis in the War of 1812.

Before the students can deliver these programs, they first have to part take in two weeks of comprehensive training on Métis culture and history while immersing themselves in all things Métis.

The training, provided by MNO staff, includes workshops on MNO programs and governance, Métis history and culture, finger weaving, beading, embroidering, snowshoe making and paddle making.

Upon completion of this training, the students take on their new role as a Summer Youth Cultural Interpreter. Lucy Fowler, one of the interpreters this year, provided her personal account of the experience.

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Lucy Fowler
Lucy Fowler at the MNO Summer Cultural Program Interpreter training.

June 4, 2013 marked the beginning of the second week of training for the Métis Summer Cultural Program. We are three groups of students, from Midland, Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay respectively, who have been charged with the important task of promoting Métis culture and history in our communities throughout the summer. Some of our interpreters have been lucky enough to do this in years past but I and the rest of the team from Thunder Bay have not.

This session of training was at Old Fort William, a former North West Company post near Thunder Bay. Behind the wooden barricades lies a fort whose buildings and inhabitants have not left the year 1816. Each building is dark wood and ghostly quiet, aside from the few workers we encountered as they tended the gardens. They saluted us with cheery waves as we watched them work, the women hiking up their skirts to pull weeds and the men using their handkerchiefs to wipe their brows.

culture kids games
Students taking part in a cultural training activity.

When we arrived at the East Building, our home for the week, we changed into traditional Métis garb. This included strap dresses for the women and corduroy pants and linen shirts for the men. It was quickly noted that the boys looked more like pirates than voyageurs, and those of us who had never worn strap dresses were drowning in fabric. We were given characters to portray for the week, almost all of them real people who were documented in the region. I became Angelique Tourangeau, a Métis girl of 18 from Red River who had migrated with her family east but elected to stay in a settlement of free people with her sister in the North West. That was all the detail I was given and I was told to use my judgement to fill in the rest. Some, usually men, were given fully formed characters who were well-documented workers in the fur trade. Others were given completely fictionalized characters, based off of general knowledge of the Métis and the fur trade at the time.

culture kids dancing
Students dancing infront of the East Building.

And so we began our training in another world; we first toured the Fort, stopping in to see the fur stores and feel the thick coats. We were told the fur storage would have smelled like a thousand wet dogs in 1816 (luckily by 2013 the smell had faded) and that none of us would have been able to afford the price of a silver fox with our voyageur/piece work salaries. One of our voyageurs was asked if he wanted some minor surgery when he could not remember his character's history. The doctor made trepanning sound relatively normal, instead of a hole that would be drilled into his skull to relieve pressure.

The next few days blended together as we learned more and more about living in the early nineteenth century. We perfected our beading, hammered out iron nails and tin graters, fired muskets and canons, and fueled ourselves with wild rice and game. Some slept in the learning wigwam, wrapping themselves in furs to keep warm. A medicinal plant walk taught us how to find ginger and raspberry leaves, horseradish and violets. We were told that “when there are bugs on it that means it's safe to take home and use”. Being a city-girl myself, I found myself enraptured by this close-to-nature way of life.

The three days ended much too quickly, with hugs and each group parting ways until we will meet again in Sault Ste. Marie in July. The trepidation that some of us felt when we arrived was long gone and replaced by excitement to once again enter into the 1800s at the next event. We, the Summer Youth Cultural Program Interpreters, are out in your communities now and looking forward to sharing our newly acquired knowledge and continuing to learn more about what it means to be Métis.

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