A growing number of people in the Mi’kmaq and Métis nations are speaking out about what they say is a growing threat to their rights, resources, and sovereignty due to the proliferation of self-identified Acadian-Métis in Nova Scotia.
Allison Bernard of Eskasoni First Nation hunts and fishes in Cape Breton and is a fisheries coordinator for Nova Scotia-based Mi’kmaq Rights Initiative.
He says in recent years a growing number of people have been hunting on Mi’kmaq land, both in and out of season.
“Since time immemorial we’ve been here. We’ve had to adjust to very troubling times. Which leads us to this point, where we have to protect what is ours, and our resources,” he says.
Bernard believes many of those new hunters are associated with recently established self-identified Acadian-Métis groups in the area.
In December 2015 Parks Canada invited Mi’kmaw hunters from the region to participate in a cull to control the moose population in Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
Non-Indigenous hunters protested the planned cull, arguing the Mi’kmaq should be given no special privilege.
The Mi’kmaq maintain they have never ceded or surrendered any part of Mi’kma’ki and point to the historic Peace and Friendship Treaties as evidence they have sovereignty over their lands and resources.
One of the hunters who protested the moose cull in 2015 is Arnold Ditherbide, who months later became a founding member of the newly formed Highlands Métis Nation Association, and the group’s “second chief”.
APTN visited Ditherbide’s house in Cape Breton to request an on-camera interview but he wasn’t home.
“White settler revisionism”
St. Mary’s University Professor Darryl Leroux has been researching the growing number of self-identified Métis in Quebec and the Maritimes and says he’s not surprised to hear one of the groups’ leaders has actively opposed Aboriginal rights in the past.
Leroux says the proliferation of self-identified Métis in Nova Scotia and other provinces is a phenomenon he calls “white settler revisionism.”
“The evidence that I’ve uncovered suggests that this is primarily a genealogical movement, linked to a political movement that often is organized around what one could call white supremacist ideas that are openly anti-Indigenous,” he said. “Not white supremacist in the hate-filled sense of the term, but rather white settlers advocating for white rights and in this case opposing Indigenous rights to achieve that end.”
He argues in academic papers and on social media that settlers—in Nova Scotia’s case mostly those who have historically identified as Acadian—often locate long ago Indigenous ancestors to claim Indigeneity in order to access Indigenous rights.
Leroux says he found that some ancestors used by self-identified Métis to claim Indigenous identity were, in fact, French women.
Most trace their roots back to between only five and 10 Mi’kmaw women who married French men in the 1600s.
He estimates upward of 10 million people today share those women as ancestors.
But not all Acadians and Nova Scotians with Indigenous ancestry claim an Indigenous identity, says Daphne Williamson, a Halifax-based lawyer and member of the Sou’West Nova Métis Council who traces her Indigenous ancestry back to the Wampanoag in what is now Massachusetts.
Speaking on behalf of seven of Nova Scotia’s eight Métis leaders, Williamson says self-identified Métis in Nova Scotia claim an Indigenous identity based not only on their ancestral connections but also on the basis that they developed distinct cultures and identities.
“Each community is distinct in and of itself because of the way it historically evolved: the circumstances, the mix of ethnicities that were comprised at the time,” she says.
But members of the Mi’kmaw community in Nova Scotia say this is news to them.
“I’ve never heard of any kind of collective Métis identity, culture, language or heritage in this region,” says Jarvis Googoo of We’koqma’q First Nation. “It only started to pop up out of the blue in the early 2000s, after Marshall.”
Métisness and the courts
Leroux points to Statistics Canada numbers that reveal 860 individuals in Nova Scotia identified as Métis in the 1996 census. By 2016 the number of self-identified Métis in the province had grown to more than 23,000.
He estimates that around 200,000 people presently identify as Métis in Quebec and the Atlantic provinces and that the proliferation coincides with court decisions that affirm Aboriginal rights and address the debate over who is Métis and who’s not.
“There are these moments where court decisions lead people to identify with a particular juridical or legal identity,” he explains.
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The 1999 Supreme Court of Canada Marshall decision affirmed Mi’kmaq treaty rights to fish for a moderate livelihood.
In 2003 the Powley decision described a Métis person as one who self-identifies, has an ancestral connection to a historic Métis community, and is accepted by that community.
And the 2016 Daniels decision ruled that Métis and non-status Indians are now the responsibility of the federal government, and are classified as “Indians” under Section 91(24) of the constitution.
Jennifer Adese, a Métis scholar and Associate Professor of Indigenous Studies Studies at Carleton University, says the phenomenon of self-identified Métis in Eastern Canada must be understood in the context of the “constitutional moment” in which it’s happening.
As part of the Métis Nation Accord, the Métis National Council developed its own definition of who is Métis. The Accord was embedded in the 1992 Charlottetown Accord and would have been entrenched in the constitution had the proposed constitutional amendments not failed.
The Métis National Council’s definition of a Métis person required that an individual be a “descendant of those Métis who received or were entitled to receive land grants and/or scrip under the provisions of the Manitoba Act, 1870 or the Dominion Lands Act.”
“I think that we’d be having a different conversation if in fact the Métis Nation Accord had been passed and entrenched the definition of who is Métis from the outset,” says Adese.
“It’s not until after that that you start to see the emergence of all of these different organizations claiming Métisness, and it’s enabled really by that lack of clarity around Métisness in that moment.”
Watch Part 2 of Justin’s story.
Adese believes if the Métis Nation Accord passed, “Powley would have looked completely different [and] these precedent-setting cases would have looked very very different.”
She and others argue that while some in Eastern Canada may have legitimate claims of Indigeneity, they are not Métis and not part of the Métis Nation.
The Powley decision’s description of a Métis person is “rooted in race-based logic,” Adese says, and re-entrenches a notion of “mixedness” that “implies Métis are somehow more mixed than any other human beings.”
She argues maternal origins matter and were crucial in the formation of the Métis Nation.
“When we say that Métis were born on the Prairies, it’s because we’re also recognizing the rootedness of First Nations women who give rise to a distinct Métis language called Michif, and a distinct Métis culture that connects us to the lands we come from.”
By contrast, Leroux questions the contemporary narratives or understandings around the nature of the relationships between the French and Acadian men and Mi’kmaw women who those self-identifying as Acadian-Métis today say gave rise to distinct peoples and cultures.
“We can literally count six or seven [Mi’kmaw women] who marry French men before 1665,” he says, describing the interpretations of those relationships as “romanticized”.
“Besides the fact that we don’t question what coercion, sexualized violence, et cetera, occur in those spaces, we’re really romanticizing a past where the…French descendants somehow have this natural alliance with Indigenous peoples.”
Racism on the water and underground
Leroux says the anti-Indigenous racism and white supremacy he argues are embedded in the movement of self-identified Métis in the Maritimes were evident during the anti-Mi’kmaq fisheries protests in 2000, following the Marshall decision.
“If we talk to people on the ground, particularly Mi’kmaw people, what we see is following the Marshall decision in 1999, and the pitched battles on the water and also off the water around lobster fishing in Esgenoôpetitj, Burnt Church—and also down in the Yarmouth area off the southern shore of Nova Scotia—many of the people who were leading the movement, violently, against Mi’kmaq fishing rights turn to a Métis identity to access Aboriginal rights. In this case Marshall rights.”
Fisherman and Sipekne’katik First Nation Councillor Alex McDonald has been fishing among Acadian fishermen in St. Mary’s Bay for a number of years now.
He says French Acadians in the region “didn’t claim Métis [identity] until after the Marshall decision,” and that “prior to that, they were battling with us all the time.”
“We’ve been fishing here a long time, and we still get the prejudice, we still get the bullshit. And the crazy thing is, the ones that are claiming Métis are the ones that are giving us a hard time.”
McDonald also questions the self-identified Acadian-Métis reliance on race-based understandings of Métisness in defining themselves; he points out the irony in the context of the Mi’kmaq.
“There’s a lot of mixed blood here on our reserves in Nova Scotia, so we could be the Métis,” he says.
Williamson acknowledges there are opportunists who self-identify as Acadian-Métis but says they are not representative of the wider community.
Explaining the exponential population growth of self-identified Métis in Nova Scotia between the mid-90s and 2016, she says people are publicly identifying now because they previously feared facing racism and discrimination for being Indigenous.
Leroux doesn’t buy it.
“I don’t find that particularly convincing, given that Indigenous peoples have been front and centre in Indigenous rights movements since the 1960s, ‘70s, into the ‘80s,” he says.
“To wait until 2015 to form an organization and to call oneself Indigenous is certainly questionable.”
APTN reached out to three Métis leaders in Cape Breton and southwestern Nova Scotia. They all declined our interview requests.
Bras d’Or Lake Métis Nation Chief Shane Savoury directed APTN to a recently authored report by self-identified Acadian-Métis scholar Chris Boudreau, who also declined our interview request.
Boudreau’s research paper, titled “An Ethnographic Report on the Acadian-Métis 2018,” argues that in the early 17th century Europeans “intermarried with the original inhabitants of the area, the Mi’kmaq, and Maliseet, creating a distinct mixed-heritage people…who subsequently endured prejudice and denigration from Acadians and others who considered themselves to be of ‘pure blood’ — a prejudice which continues to the present day.”
Leroux took to Twitter in March to critique the work, arguing the author and his colleagues did not consider “Mi’kmaw perspectives on the existence of another Indigenous people on Mi’kmaw territory.”
He also argues that they “provide no evidence whatsoever that [Acadian-Métis] maintained kinship relations and accompanying forms of responsibility with Mi’kmaw people.
“Being mixed-race is not evidence that somebody is Métis in the sense that the authors develop,” he tweeted.
Many who claim Acadian-Métis identity are not after hunting or fishing rights. But they are taking up precious space created for Indigenous people, says Googoo.
Citing scholarships for Indigenous students and other resources and opportunities set aside to “help ameliorate and remove those historical disadvantages facing Mi’kmaq people,” Googoo says self-identified Métis are increasingly encroaching on those spaces.
“When I hear of Métis people, groups popping up here all of a sudden — and then applying to professional schools, applying for scholarships and jobs, then I ask, OK, can you present to me the historical dispossession, the historically disadvantaged Métis groups and collective communities that have happened here in this region?”
In March the East Coast Music Association [ECMA] revoked the nomination of self-identified Acadian-Métis guitarist Maxim Cormier, who was being considered for the Indigenous Artist of the Year award.
In a statement posted to the organization’s website, ECMA Chair Dean Stairs explained the decision, stating “the law has not recognized Maxim Cormier or the community he is a member of, the Highland Métis, as being recognized as members of the ‘aboriginal peoples of Canada’ under the Constitution.”
Cormier declined an interview request for this story.
Searching for personal Acadian-Métis narratives
To get a better sense of the personal stories behind Acadian-Métis identity APTN travelled to Cape Breton.
While Highlands Métis Nation Association Chief Randy Roach declined our interview request, we caught up with his father, William Roach, a well-known artist in Chéticamp.
Roach says his grandfather was of mixed French and Mi’kmaw ancestry and a known medicine man in the region, but that growing up his family didn’t discuss their Indigenous roots.
He says it was just two or three years ago that his sons began to take an interest in exploring their Indigenous ancestry.
“Some, myself, would ask, what’s a Métis? I didn’t know it was a mixed blood with Natives and French, you know. But now I understand what it means: it’s a bloodline, it’s a special thing to me because you know I’m getting on in age and I’m glad to see that the young people are taking an interest and finally developing that. They’re going to see where they come from.”
Roach describes his own understanding of the term Métis as being mixed-race, and a bridge or pathway toward Mi’kmaw identity.
“We would like to be identified as Mi’kmaq because that’s what we are,” he explains. “But the Métis thing, for now, sort of covers it.
“A lot of us are willing to be called Mi’kmaq, or Métis, whichever way — because it is our bloodline. We would like to have a place that we can identify…one way or the other, with Métis or Mi’kmaq, fully — that we would feel at ease.”
Googoo says if Acadians in Nova Scotia who learn they have Mi’kmaq ancestry are genuinely interested in learning about their heritage, they should approach members of the Mi’kmaq community rather than immediately claim Indigeneity.
“If people are finding that they do have Mi’kmaq heritage from way back when I strongly encourage and support them to learn more about that Mi’kmaq heritage.”
Bernard, too, says the Mi’kmaw community has always welcomed outsiders and encouraged those with ancestral ties to their nation to introduce themselves.
He says the Mi’kmaq are fighting for their sovereignty, and that a big part of that battle is maintaining the ability to decide who is a citizen of their nation, and who isn’t.
“If you claim that you’re a Métis, then I would rather tell you, why don’t you claim that you’re Mi’kmaw? And through your blood, and through your connections and your lineage, prove to me that you’re Mi’kmaw — and we’ll decide if you’re Mi’kmaw. The Mi’kmaq will decide that. Not the government. Or your organization,” he says.
Adese says the Métis to have been fighting for years to protect their identity and sovereignty as a distinct Indigenous people and nation too.
She says settlers who discover they have Indigenous ancestry but have no ties to the culture, language, or existing Indigenous communities should feel comfortable with who they are and learn about their Indigenous heritage.
“It’s OK to say that my great, great, great grandmother was Mi’kmaw, and that’s it,” she says. “It doesn’t have to turn into anything else.
“You can be comfortable in that moment. And you can celebrate that [ancestry] and try to learn more what that means. But it doesn’t have to translate into rights-based claims.”
Leroux has traced his own genealogy back to Mohawk and Algonquin ancestors, and even shares some of the same ancestors he says self-identified Acadian-Métis are using to claim Indigeneity today—but says that doesn’t make him Indigenous.
“My family hunts and fishes. We have these stories about having long ago Indigenous ancestors…but my family has no relationship with living Indigenous people.
“As someone who’s a French descendant…I would suggest that Acadians are Acadians. And that Acadian people should be proud to identify as Acadian, to identify with their history, which has often been quite difficult, with their resilience.”
A “new wave of colonialism”
Leroux says the mass self-Indigenization among self-identified Métis in Eastern Canada is “part of a process of colonialism” in which “white French descendant settlers are incorporating themselves as Indigenous…which is part of the story that sort of gives settler colonialism momentum into the future.”
Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaw lawyer, and Chair of Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, agrees.
She describes the phenomenon as a “new wave of colonization, where the colonizers, who have already taken just about everything from us, have seen that we’ve received wins in courts over the last few decades.
“So now they’re circling back and the only way to defeat our wins, our claims to our lands and resources, is to now claim Indigenous identity themselves and take it that way.”
Palmater says the Mi’kmaq Nation should pay close attention at the chance a provincial court in Nova Scotia or elsewhere quietly renders a decision recognizing self-identified Métis as having Aboriginal rights under Canadian law.
“I worry that courts are not going to get the full picture,” she says.
“If you have two non-Native lawyers in court trying to make these arguments—say a Crown prosecutor and a non-Native lawyer trying to make all of these Aboriginal rights claims for one of these opportunistic identifiers—that could be a real problem if we get a judgement.”
Palmater also says decisions by Canadian courts to determine who is Indigenous, and who is not, on unceded Mi’kmaq territory would violate the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“There is a right for Indigenous Peoples to belong to their Indigenous Nation, but there’s a corresponding right of the Indigenous Nation to decide who belongs and who doesn’t, and to govern those processes.”
Williamson says self-identified Métis in Nova Scotia in pursuit of Aboriginal rights don’t pose a threat to Mi’kmaq rights and sovereignty, but in the same breath revealed she believes they are entitled to treaty rights under the historic Indigenous-Crown Peace and Friendship treaties.
“No one is looking to take anything away from the Mi’kmaq or claim anything that more appropriately belongs to the Mi’kmaq,” she says.
“Now having said that, if you look at the history of the treaties on the eastern seaboard, the Peace and Friendship Treaties were signed among the entire eastern seaboard. So any Nation that was a signatory to that treaty is a treaty beneficiary, including mine.”
Williamson says while the treaties distinguished between Indigenous people and settlers, they “did not delineate by blood quantum, generation, matriarchy, patriarchy, or anything else as to who the heirs of those treaty benefits would be.
“So in other words the Mi’kmaq, the Acadian-Métis, my people—anyone who descends from the Nations that were signatories to those treaties—by rights is a treaty beneficiary. But which benefits they will pursue is entirely their call.”
Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq chiefs did not respond to an interview request from APTN but have been clear in the past that Mi’kmaq are the only rights holders in Mi’kma’ki.