Telling Truths about the Métis in the Robinson Huron Treaty Territory

By Mitch Case
Provisional Council of Métis Nation of Ontario, Regional Councillor
Huron-Superior Regional Métis Community

Headshot of Mitch Case, PCMNO CouncillorWith the statements made this week from the Robinson Huron Waawiindamaagewin and a few Chiefs, I want to respond with facts. I will not be engaging in a back and forth, neither on social or within mainstream media, as those are ultimately not the mediums through which these important issues should be addressed.  With that said, I want to be clear that we are not afraid to engage against the misinformation being advanced by some Chiefs.

Very often, when it comes to Indigenous issues, we get more attention when in conflict situations, as opposed to having the opportunity to tell our stories in a positive and good way. The current frenzy being advanced by some denies the very existence of my Métis community—a community with constitutionally protected rights confirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada—and the other Métis communities in Ontario.  It is appalling and unconscionable. And, it is disappointing that some media are writing articles giving voice to those that deny the very existence of Métis people and our communities without facts or balance.

I am elected to lead my Métis community in the Huron-Superior region. I am proud of my history from this well-known and well-documented Métis community. I was raised by this Métis community. My identity was shaped by the Elders in this community who made sure I knew our story. I am not, nor will I ever be, ashamed of who we are.  Media should think about what effect denying the very existence of our communities has on our young people who have to read this.  Would you print that another minority group’s very existence was denied?  I don’t think so.  Yet, Métis are now fair game?

Let me be clear:  we are not Anishinaabe. Nor are we anyone’s leftovers or subordinates. We are also no one’s poor cousins, beholden or subservient to anyone else’s recognition or acceptance. I reject any suggestion that we need anyone else’s permission to be a people, community, or to be proud of who we are. Our existence is rooted in our own culture, identity, collective consciousness, assertions, resilience, and inherent rights.

My heart goes out to my Métis relatives as well as our First Nation relations (many who do not agree with the public attacks being made by some Chiefs).  These attacks are ill-informed, ugly, misguided, hurtful and distasteful. To my Métis family, friends and community: be proud, hold your head up high, and know that our Métis communities are not going anywhere.

Mica BayIn many ways these attacks only serve to make us stronger and more resilient. Look at what we did in 1849/50 when we joined—as “Half-Breeds”—with our Anishinaabe kin to push back on Canada’s incursion on our shared territory as a part of the Mica Bay Uprising.

Look at what Ontario’s denial of our very existence in the 1990s did as well. It led us to advancing the historic Powley case—based on the strength and resilience of the Powley family and the support of our community and the Métis Nation of Ontario (MNO)—all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Three levels of courts in Ontario and the Supreme Court were unanimous in confirming our existence as a Métis community with constitutionally protected rights.  The evidence before the courts was overwhelming.  Not one of the 14 judges we appeared before in that 10-year litigation battle disagreed with the undeniable fact that there was a Métis community in this region of Ontario.  We will NEVER go back to those days, and these new denials will only serve to strengthen our resolve.

It is also worth noting that it is bit ironic that the Robinson Huron Waawiindamaagewin, who have also valiantly turned to the court to rightly have the Robinson Huron Treaty respected, and who unquestionably accept and rely on the court decisions in the historic Restoule litigation to now negotiate with the Crown, are now turning around and attempting to ignore similar court decisions that affirm co-existing Métis rights in the Robinson-Huron Treaty territory.

These Chiefs are trying to deny our ability to negotiate with the Crown, about how we have chosen to identify our citizens, govern ourselves, and protect or children, families and communities for generations to come.  I find this logic difficult to follow. As a Métis leader who is at the beginning of my political career, I can only hope that the next generation of Robinson Huron Waawiindamaagewin will work with us—as their well-known “Half-Breed” (i.e. Métis) cousins—instead of buying into the false narratives that some “consultants” and “academics” seem to be peddling to promote themselves.

pull quoteI also want to bring our Métis history to the table. Other may choose to ignore it for political soundbites, but the facts are there for all who want to see.  From the late 1700s, there was a distinct Métis population that emerged in the Upper Great Lakes region, anchored on either end by Sault Ste. Marie and Penetanguishene. There are hundreds of documents which acknowledge our distinct “Half-Breed” community by either First Nations, outsiders, the Crown or in our own words.

It is important to note that during this historic period the term “Half-Breed” was often used to describe who we now refer to as the Métis people. This term was also used to describe our relations in Western Canada whether in the Manitoba Act, 1870 or the “Half-Breed” scrip system established on the prairies. Those same documents talk about the “Indians” acknowledging the “Half-Breeds” as distinct (not as outsiders, settlers or as Anishinaabe, but as distinct and as their kin).  The facts of history are clear that our communities were related, interacted frequently and had relation, but we were NOT the same.

Our oral history as well as the same historic record First Nations relied on the Restoule litigation (i.e., like the Vidal & Anderson Report) also confirms our unique existence and distinct communities, including, the style of houses we had, our River-lot land tenure system, our “bad” farming habits, our unique styles of clothing, occupations, culture, religious practices, and kinship connections between these communities. This distinctiveness is NOT of recent vintage and was readily apparent to all who came through the territory in those days.

Do we have some shared last names between our communities? Absolutely, as is the case across Western Canada. All across the prairies there are Metis Arcands and First Nations Arcands, Metis Cardinals, and First Nations Cardinals, Metis Chartrands and First Nations Chartrands, the existence of each takes nothing away from the other.

Did we have relationships with the Anishinaabe? Absolutely. Were we the same?  Absolutely not.

For example, in 1835, the Crown tried to evict the Half-Breeds from the river-lots in Sault Ste. Marie and relocate them to St. Joseph’s Island. The Crown’s representative met with the Half-Breeds about this, not the Chiefs from neighboring communities.

In the 1830s, the Anglican missionaries and the government wanted the Half-Breeds removed from the Sault, because they were a “nuisance to our protestant missionary labors.” These statements were made about us, not about the Anishinaabe.

In the 1830s, several Half-Breed families asked Chief Shingwauk (a mixed ancestry Chief who was raised as and identified as Anishinaabe) to represent them. Shingwauk himself stated that they had asked him to represent them – if our ancestors were already “his people” and simply Anishinaabe why would they have to be asked?

In the 1840s, Shingwaukonse held a meeting with the Half-Breeds in the Sault. There are at least two written accounts of this meeting, from people who were there. Those accounts make clear that the Half-Breeds were seen as a separate community. “The Chief told us, that if we joined his band, became his men or soldiers – that he would work for us…” The offer from the Chief was appreciated, but generally declined by the Half-Breeds. “…only four of us agreed to join his band… all the other Half-Breeds said they were Indians enough without binding themselves to be under an Indian Chief.”

pull quote 2By rejecting his offer to join his band, the Half-Breeds at Sault Ste. Marie were exercising their collective right to self-determination – to choose how and by whom they were represented. “If we became,” “if we joined,” “only four agreed to join” is language that does not show a people who were already a part of the Anishinaabe or an individual Chief’s Band.

In 1893, after interviewing many members of both the Batchewana and Garden River bands – in regards to the Half-Breeds of Sault Ste. Marie, John Driver wrote in part “…1848-1849 that Shingwaukonce held a council with the Halfbreeds… the two chiefs wanted to obtain the good will of the Halfbreeds to side with them in the Pointe of Mines Affair…”

These statements, among many others, make clear that the Halfbreeds in Sault Ste. Marie were seen as their own group with their own agency. If they were members of the Garden River Band, there wouldn’t have been a need for the Chiefs to try to convince them to join the band.

In treaty negotiations, Shingwaukonse and Nebainagoching advocated for the Half-Breeds to be included, they wanted the river-lots left to them. After the Commissioner made a promise that the Half-Breeds were in “free and full possession” of their lands, our ancestor—as a “Half-Breed”— wrote a petition, asking that this promise be upheld.

The Half-Breed petition mentions they were “born upon the soil” and had “inherited their possessions from their mothers” or “purchased from Half-Breeds or Indians.” Notably, this is the same language you see in Half-Breed assertions and petitions in Manitoba and what is now western Canada.  It is disingenuous and deceitful for consultants and academics to simply ignore these facts in the reports they now sell to First Nations, and that they ask governments and others to accept as credible.

Again, in their own words, the Chiefs wrote a supporting petition and it has several key points. In reference to the Half-Breed river-lots, the Chiefs state they Half-Breeds had lived there for “upwards of forty years…having an inheritance in the country equal to our own, and bound to it by as strong and heartfelt ties as we ourselves, we being apprehensive that the government after having purchased this land of which these people are also are equally the rightful and just owners.”

This language from the Chiefs petition is clear: they saw the Half-Breeds as their equals, not their subjects, subordinates or as nothing at all (like some Chiefs are saying today).  And for those who say the Half-Breeds were not welcome there by the Anishinaabe, the Chiefs added they lived there “with the consent of ourselves and people.”

After Canada worked to defeat the land related promise that was made to us, many of our people ended up moving to neighboring reserves – apparently welcomed by those communities. Some of our people married into those First Nations and today identify as Anishinaabe, as is their right to do so.  However, their personal choices don’t get to snuff out our Métis community.  And, they don’t get to tell the rest of us we can’t identify as the proud Half-Breeds because they choose to ignore their own history.

In the 1890s, the Borron Report was written which outlined that even 40 years after the Robinson Superior Treaty was signed, “the Half-Breeds” were still a distinct and identifiable group, that lived separate from the Anishinaabe.

Sault Ste Marie river lotsIn the 1960s another village of ours, Agawa Bay (not Agawa Rock where the pictographs are) was evicted and burned to the ground by Ontario Parks. The families were all Half-Breeds. In the 1960s, the Sault became headquarters of OMNSIA, and later OMAA – two organizations that had distinct Métis communities represented within them. These organizations were often dominated by strong Métis leadership, and it is no accident that this happened here—in Sault Ste Marie—the place where we have such a strong sense of Métis self-awareness.

In the 1970s and 1980s, our Métis communities here in Ontario worked hard with other Métis to get “Métis” included in section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.  After that victory, we knew we needed to create a Métis-specific government for our citizens and communities.  We did just that in 1993 with the creation of the MNO.  In the 1990s, we participated in the negotiations of the Métis Nation Accord as a part of the Charlottetown Accord, which was ultimately rejected by Canadians.

In the mid 1990s, our community, as a part of the MNO tried to use Section 35 to negotiate on Métis harvesting rights with Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR). MNR refused to even speak with us and we had to turn to the courts. In the courts, Ontario spent 10 years saying we didn’t exist, we never existed, we had no rights. The same flawed arguments some Chiefs are making now—30 years later.  Again, it’s ironic that this history is repeating itself, but like we did with Ontario’s unsound positions, we know that the facts of history and justice will ultimately prevail.

This year is the 20th anniversary of our victory in the Powley Decision. Powley is 100% clear: there was—and is—a Métis community in Sault Ste. Marie that exists within the Robinson Huron Treaty territory. It was here before that treaty was signed in 1850.  It continues to be here today, and it has rights that co-exist with treaty rights. Period. And our rights are rooted in our existence as a people and distinct community, not as derivatives of our First Nations relatives who require their consent.

Steve and Roddy PowleyIn 2004, the MNO and the Chiefs of Ontario signed a political protocol which stated in part “to affirm mutual respect, recognition and support for the respective rights, interests and aspirations of First Nations and the Métis Nation within Ontario.” That same year, the MNO and the Anishinabek Nation entered into a similar agreement with the MNO, which was done in ceremony, with the drum, pipes, tobacco, food, songs and gifts shared. It was said to be a nation-to-nation agreement.

After a few new Chiefs were elected, they pretended none of this had happened. They refused to meet with us again, they wrote press releases attacking us. If doing agreements in ceremony is sacred and binding, how can it only be binding when it’s convenient?

These agreements were made well after the MNO made it clear who we were, what our goals were, and after the Supreme Court of Canada recognized us. The First Nations leadership chose to enter into those agreements. There was respect between us.  We were rekindling our shared history.

Today, some Chiefs are stating ‘you aren’t who you believe you are, you’re really us.’ To take this outlandish position, these Chiefs are rejecting the words of Shingwaukonse and other revered Anishinaabe Chiefs. They are letting short-term politics get in the way of real reconciliation between our peoples, which is just as important as reconciliation between our peoples and the Crown.

Sunlight and facts will ultimately expose the duplicity some of these Chiefs are advancing today, along with their paid consultants and academics.  When that happens, our Métis community’s open and extended hand will continue to be here, like it always has.

Let me also be clear – I don’t want Indian Act “status,” nor does my community. Many of those of us who moved to the reserves after the treaty did so as a last resort. We want only what all peoples have – the right to be who we are, self-govern our communities and exercise our inherent rights as Métis, and not be attacked and insulted by our relations and kin for it.

In the last week, Chiefs from across Ontario have been attacking Métis communities, and yesterday Chiefs in Manitoba did the same to the Manitoba Métis. We aren’t talking about issues solely impacting Sault Ste. Marie or Ontario. It is clear there is a belief among some First Nations leadership that Métis are not allowed to exist. This is absolutely wrong.  We need real leadership from Métis and First Nations to find a way forward.  We will be here when that real leadership emerges.

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